LACONIA — A century ago, rooming houses were a popular option for young people just starting out, or anybody who couldn’t afford a home or apartment.
People would rent a small room and share bathroom and kitchen facilities with others.
Given today’s high cost of housing and stagnant wages, they may be making something of a comeback.
Jonathan Bedell of North Reading, Massachusetts, owns a rooming house at 736 Union Ave., in Laconia and wanted to open another at 1073 Union Ave. He sees strong demand.
The Zoning Board of Adjustment turned down his request on Tuesday after neighbors objected, although the board approved a separate application for a boarding house for women in recovery at 658 Union Ave.
Horizons Counseling Center and Navigating Recovery will supervise and run the eight-bed establishment, which will be called Compass House. The building is now occupied by Lakes Region Community Developers, which plans to move to 191 Court St., said Carmen Lorentz, the organization’s executive director.
Rob Mora, the city’s assistant planner, said Bedell’s request for a rooming house was turned down after a police report indicated 107 calls for service over a 3-year period to the rooming house Bedell owns at 736 Union Ave. Many of the calls related to disturbances, suspicious persons and medical aid. No major crimes were apparent from the report.
Bedell said he was surprised at the total. He said that after some initial difficulties, the business has been running smoothly. He also said his manager has a good relationship with police, is proactive about calling and that may contribute to the overall number of calls.
Nine rooming houses were identified in the police report. The other eight accounted for 175 calls in the same time period, including 85 to 24 McGrath St., 56 to 23 Messer St., and 21 to 96 Church St.
Police Chief Matt Canfield said he doesn’t see a problem with rooming houses.
“I don’t think they are a public safety issue,” he said. “Some of their clients may be more challenging for us than others, but it’s not a problem.”
Mora, the assistant planner, said Zoning Board members voiced concern that Bedell’s proposal could lead to excessive demand for police services. Some neighbors complained there could be a public safety hazard if residents tried to cross busy Union Avenue.
Bedell said the concerns of several neighbors drove a decision that will end up costing the city some much-needed affordable housing.
“They came out with their pitchforks,” he said. “It’s the age-old thing, ‘You’re not going to put that around my house.’
“It’s a shame. I was going to build a decent place.”
He doesn’t fault the Zoning Board.
“I was happy with the consideration,” he said. “I can understand that when the mob comes in screaming and yelling, the mob rules. You can't fight that.”
He said his rooms start at about $300 a month. He estimates that is well under half of what a small apartment would cost, if one could be found.
The state of Homelessness in New Hampshire Report 2018 showed that monthly median gross rent for a 2-bedroom apartment increased 7.5 percent in the county over a two-year period, to $1,071, compared to $1,296 statewide.
Vacancy rates for a 2-bedroom apartment unit was 4 percent in the county and 2 percent statewide, the report said.
Meanwhile, the report showed median income for a renter household increased 6.2 percent statewide from 2016 to 2018, but dropped 7.6 percent in Belknap County during that time, from $36,690 to $33,903.
Mike Persson, an attorney who represented Bedell and was formerly on the School Board, said the City Council needs to look at the issue of low-income housing and consider whether zoning ordinances should be adjusted.
He previously questioned whether heightened police calls at rooming houses should be used as a criteria for approving a project.
“If they are looking at police reports for rooming houses, and if there are a substantial number, does that mean no rooming house could ever be approved?” he asked. “It seems to me that’s a decision for the City Council to make through amendment of the ordinance, not one the Zoning Board would make based on data that is out there.
“Look at multi-unit apartment buildings. There are more police calls to those sorts of things, given the number of people. Would we not allow an apartment building?”