LACONIA — Tony Felch is busy.

In an interview Tuesday at The Laconia Daily Sun, the property manager at Mountain View Apartments provided a handwritten list of 10 volunteer positions he fills — everything from Leavitt Park Community Club president to head of the NH Billiards League.

Felch, 60, would like to add one job to that list — Ward 6 Laconia city councilor.

Standing in his way is Sarah Jenna, 36, an insurance agent and Planning Board member, who wants to bring a fresh perspective to the all-male City Council, where the average age is 67.

Currently, the youngest councilor is Andrew Hosmer, 55, who is giving up his Ward 6 seat in a bid to succeed Mayor Ed Engler, who is not seeking re-election. State Rep. Peter Spanos is also running for mayor.

Jenna, who was at home Tuesday with the flu, said in a telephone interview that she has learned much about the city during the year she has spent on the Planning Board.

She said she has gained knowledge from people who have served the city for many years.

“I can learn so much from the older generation,” she said, “but I also feel you kind of need a mix of young and old. You don’t want to lose how things have always been, but somebody younger is not a bad idea.”

Short-term rentals

Jenna has a different approach than the current City Council on the issue of regulating short-term, Airbnb-type rentals.

Engler has suggested, and a council consensus supports, prohibiting such rentals outside The Weirs, although owner-occupied buildings in most areas would be exempt from the prohibition.

The Planning Board forwarded to the council a less-restrictive regulatory system that would have allowed short-term rentals in most areas without the requirement that they be owner-occupied.

There have been a few instances in the last couple years in which neighbors have complained about parking, noise, or other problems associated with short-term rentals, but most operate without a problem.

Jenna said she didn't even realize there were a couple of Airbnb properties on her street until she started looking into the issue. 

“I was on the committee that helped with short-term rental guidelines,” Jenna said. “We heard from quite a few people who said these rentals have given them backup income after a divorce, or for a retirement fund.”

She said the regulations proposed by the Planning Board have provisions to protect neighbors if someone was running a short-term rental in a disruptive way.

“There’s a lot of tourism here,” she said. “Letting one or two bad eggs spoil it for everybody isn’t something I agree with.”

Felch, on the other hand, said requiring owner occupancy for those wishing to offer a short-term rental is a good idea.

“If the owner is there, they’re going to be keeping a tab on it and you’re not going to have the wild parties or the parking problems,” he said.

He said he’s open to allowing short-term rentals in resort areas of the city.

Affordable housing

As a property manager for 28 years, Felch has had a front-row seat for what he considers a key problem in Laconia — a lack of affordable housing.

The apartment complex he manages at 380 Mile Hill Road has units that rent for $775 to $925 per month, but there are no vacancies. When one is available, it is rented out as soon as it can be cleaned and prepared for the new tenant.

“Nobody in Laconia has vacancies,” Felch said. “I talk to a lot of the landlords, and there’s nothing.”

He said low vacancy rates mean landlords can be selective and tend to reject people with credit issues, such as an eviction. He also said high rents contribute to homelessness.

“We need to increase our minimum wage,” he said.

At $7.25 an hour, or less than $300 per week before taxes, it would be very difficult to afford an apartment, Felch said.

“And food, and especially if you have a kid or something,” he said. “Single parents have it hard.

“I’m a single parent. I’m lucky that I have a good job that I’ve had for a long time. Nine years ago my mom passed away, so I bought my brother out and I am living in the house that I was raised in.”

Felch said he tries to keep rents down at the apartment complex he manages.

“I try to keep mine affordable for middle-income families, and that’s what we need in Laconia,” he said. “We need the families. We need the people that are going to be in business to come to Laconia.

“Once we get the people we can increase the jobs and work on getting more industry and more businesses in Laconia.”

Jenna, who was born and raised in Laconia, said she and her family found rental costs to be astronomical in Laconia before they purchased a home a few years ago.

“My biggest thing is that we need more affordable housing for our area — not low-income, not higher-end, but actual middle income,” she said.

Getting involved

Jenna said she decided to get involved in local government when school budgets were being cut.

“It’s one of those things, either step up or be quiet,” she said. “I wanted to have a voice and I want to learn. I want to make as big an impact as possible because I love my community.”

Felch, the Ward 6 moderator, said he’s running for the same reason he does so much volunteer work: He likes helping others.

This is the fourth time he has run for the City Council, including one write-in campaign. He was defeated repeatedly by the late-Ward 6 Councilor Armand Bolduc, who died last year at age 78. Felch also once lost a bid to become a state representative.

Jenna said she considers herself a good listener.

“I think the biggest thing is making sure you really listen,” Jenna said. “I've seen people on both sides like to talk, but there’s not a lot of listening and absorbing information and going from there.

“A lot of people have the same goals, but people get passionate and emotional and start overtalking each other.”

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