The red flags were there from the moment Trina Luna moved in.

The first time she walked into her triple-decker in southeast Manchester, the bathroom smelled like urine. The refrigerator was so dirty, she worried about unpacking her groceries. And it seemed to take forever to get things fixed.

“I should have walked away,” said Luna, who shares the apartment on Wilson Street with her father, fiancé and 18-year-old son.

A decade later, the floor is peeling and the ceiling is fraying. Recurrent roach infestations have interrupted visits from the home health aides her family relies on.

“Conditions have just gotten worse since I’ve been here,” Luna said. “And now they’re just unbearable.”

Other current and former tenants at this property, a pair of neighboring six-unit buildings constructed in 1880, described similar problems: leaks, insects, cracked walls, poorly handled repairs. A chunk of one family’s living room ceiling fell down a few months ago, sending one person to the hospital. The ceiling has since been repaired, but residents say they still don’t feel safe in the apartment.

Tracey Hicks, who lived there under a crumbling ceiling until just recently, said she can’t understand how things have been allowed to get so bad.

“What is the city doing?” she said. “Does somebody have to fall through the ceiling? Does somebody have to die in there, just for them to come out?”

On paper, Manchester’s housing code is meant to keep tenants at buildings like these out of harm’s way. Rental properties are supposed to be inspected every three years, or whenever someone files a complaint. If there are persistent violations, the city can issue fines, revoke rental permits or take unresponsive landlords to court.

But local tenants and housing advocates say the city isn’t doing enough to hold property owners who repeatedly flout local housing rules accountable. They say city officials are slow to respond to complaints and even slower to take meaningful action to demand timely fixes from landlords. City records also show a backlog of citations, adding up to thousands of dollars in uncollected housing-related fines dating back to 2019.

City officials acknowledge they could be doing a better job with housing oversight, blaming limited staff, resources and enforcement power. The pandemic also interrupted the city’s normal inspection schedule, though routine inspections have since resumed. The city’s top housing official also says its existing rules aren’t sufficient to deal with the problems many tenants are facing.

“A lot of these buildings I wouldn’t want to live in, and you probably wouldn’t either, but they might meet the housing code requirements,” said Leon Lafreniere, who oversees housing enforcement as Manchester’s director of planning and community development. “The housing code requirements really are speaking to the most fundamental of life safety issues. They don’t deal with aesthetics, they don’t deal with other quality of life issues that stem from that.”

For people living in these conditions, it can mean feeling stuck, with the absence of more rigorous enforcement profoundly affecting their quality of life. Not only can it be hard for people living in substandard housing to find another home in Manchester’s increasingly competitive and expensive rental market, but in some cases, the very conditions tenants are trying to escape are being used against them — as landlords point to overdue repairs to justify a wave of new eviction cases.

“The reason I haven’t said anything is because I’ve been afraid,” said Luna, who earlier this year found herself on the receiving end of just such an eviction notice. “Because I have nowhere to go.”

A closer lookThe city’s files on 215-221 Wilson St. describe a property with a history of problems.

It was up for a routine inspection eight months ago but as of press time had yet to receive its certificate of compliance, the city’s way of confirming that it meets the housing code. City inspectors have toured the building at least five times since April, flagging broken windows, and damaged floors, walls and ceilings. While several tenants told NHPR they experienced falling ceilings or other issues that, in their view, posed a threat to their safety during the same time period, city officials said their inspections didn’t reveal any deficiencies that presented an imminent danger.

Tenants aren’t the only ones who’ve taken notice of the property’s poor condition. In 2014, 215 Wilson St. was called out in a Granite State Organizing Project report on substandard housing for “a history of recurring leaks, electrical problems, and insect infestations (cockroaches and bed bugs) so severe it was referred to the Health Department in 2006.”

The buildings have changed owners several times since then. For more than a decade, they were owned by a local family whose properties have some of the highest rates of tenant complaints in Manchester over the past decade, according to city data.

Hsiu Chang — whose family owns about 60 rental units across the city, many serving low-income tenants, immigrants and new Americans — acknowledged that their buildings have accumulated a lot of complaints. He also acknowledged that the Wilson Street property had a documented record of problems during their ownership, though he said they tried to respond to issues as they arose.

Sometimes it was hard to keep up with repairs, Chang said, whether due to labor shortages, trouble coordinating with tenants’ schedules or other hurdles. He also questioned whether some of the issues could have been caused by the tenants who, he said, could have chosen to live elsewhere if they didn’t like the condition of their apartment. And in general, he thinks the city’s approach to housing enforcement works well.

“I think it’s very fair,” Chang said. “They are not expecting you to change it to a five-star hotel. They want everything to be safe.”

In 2018, Chang’s family sold the buildings on Wilson Street to 215 Wilson Street LLC, which based on public corporation records appears to be connected to a Massachusetts company that markets to property owners hoping to offload houses quickly, without making repairs.

NHPR attempted to contact 215 Wilson Street LLC by email and phone but did not receive a substantive response as of press time. We did connect with a man whose phone number was listed on city paperwork during 215 Wilson Street LLC’s time of ownership, who told NHPR he was managing the building for a friend but declined to elaborate on his role or affiliation with the property owner. The same man said tenants’ complaints were, in his experience, adequately handled.

In early 2021, the buildings were sold again, to a Boston-based owner, Mark Daniels, who works for a real estate private equity firm and owns about 70 units scattered across New Hampshire, in Claremont, Newport, Laconia, Bristol and Greenfield.

Daniels agrees with the tenants at his new property on Wilson Street in Manchester: It’s in rough shape.

“The tenants are right that over the course of several years of, I would say, for lack of a better word, neglect, we’re starting to see the consequences of that,” Daniels said.

In fact, he said that’s part of what drew him to buy it. He wants to invest in the property, which he said should be a “shining star” in its neighborhood, and he’s budgeted about $300,000 for a “down to the studs” overhaul.

But Daniels said he can’t finish the most intensive renovations with tenants inside. Since buying the building in March, he has pursued evictions against at least four families — including Luna and Hicks — citing the need to do significant work in each apartment. He said he didn’t have the budget or the obligation to complete his planned repairs without displacing tenants.

“We try to be as respectful of the tenants during the eviction proceedings as we can,” Daniels said. “I think it’s a responsibility as a landlord to improve the building as much as possible, but I don’t think it falls on us to have the responsibility to put an entire family up in a hotel for a couple of months.”

Elliott Berry, who co-directs the New Hampshire Legal Assistance Housing Justice Project, is less convinced that eviction was the only option. Berry has been working with a few of the tenants at the Wilson Street property, and he said the entire situation might have been prevented if officials hadn’t allowed the property to fall into such disrepair in the first place.

“I don’t think there’s any question that if the enforcement had been more rigorous, the property would be in better condition and it probably wouldn’t necessitate the need to do extensive renovations,” he said.

Berry also said this situation isn’t unique. He and his colleagues have been working on lots of eviction cases backlogged in local courts during the pandemic. They’ve been witnessing what Berry called “an epidemic of evictions based on the landlord’s need or desire to renovate.”

“I have a strong suspicion that in many cases that’s just being done because it’s an easy way to evict tenants that you don’t want,” Berry said. “But on the other hand, I also do think that there are plenty of cases where, yeah, that the reason for the renovation is years of neglect by the owner or the owner’s predecessors.”

Data shows disparitiesThis map reflects the estimated percentage of people living below poverty from the 2014-2018 American Community Survey, as reflected in the CDC’s 2018 Social Vulnerability Index.

Local housing advocates say the Wilson Street property is an example of the city’s failure to fully police its housing code and the disproportionate harm that’s inflicting on Manchester’s most vulnerable residents.

“The majority of affordable housing was the older housing stock, and because the older housing stock is so dilapidated, a huge amount of them are being sold and rehabbed right now,” said Jessica Margeson, who works on housing issues with the Granite State Organizing Project.

Few Manchester residents have spent as much time studying the local housing enforcement process as Margeson. She first started learning about building regulations and tenants’ rights out of necessity, when she and her two children were living in a poorly maintained apartment and she wasn’t getting anywhere asking the landlord to fix the problem. When she tried standing up for herself, she said, she was evicted.

“The whole time, I thought, ‘If I can do this, I’m going to teach others how to do this,’” she said. “Because this isn’t fair.”

Today, Margeson helps renters fend off evictions, track down unresponsive landlords, file complaints with the city and more. That experience has shown her how unaddressed housing problems can disrupt so many other aspects of a person’s life.

Living in decaying housing — with excess moisture, dust or simply the stress that comes with not feeling safe in your own home — can directly harm tenants’ physical and mental health, she said. It can also be expensive for families who don’t have a lot of money to begin with to replace food, clothes or linens that have been spoiled by bugs or other hazards, she said.

At the same time, she said, moving is also expensive and destabilizing — especially for families with school-aged children or those who rely on support systems in a particular neighborhood. And these problems are especially hard on those who don’t have the time, money or power to challenge retaliatory landlords or unresponsive city officials.

City data also underscores the disparities in who’s most often affected by substandard housing in Manchester. About half of all housing complaints logged by the city’s code enforcement department in the past decade are concentrated in a handful of neighborhoods, representing less than a quarter of the city’s population. Those areas also tended to be poorer and more racially diverse than the city as a whole.

Manchester officials acknowledge that certain neighborhoods are in need of more housing oversight than others. To that end, Lafreniere, who oversees Manchester’s housing enforcement, said they have two inspectors who focus predominantly on housing or zoning enforcement in low- and moderate-income neighborhoods. But he said those inspectors don’t receive any specialized training or approach their work differently than other inspectors, aside from having a specific geographic focus.

It’s also important to keep in mind that the city’s complaint database might not capture the extent of local tenants’ housing concerns. For example, the property on Wilson Street only shows up four times since 2013; tenants say they’ve largely directed their complaints to the building’s owners or property manager, not city officials. They said they didn’t know who else to contact for help, or didn’t trust that their concerns would be taken seriously.

Margeson said she sees this with a lot of other tenants living in substandard apartments.

“They kept quiet, because when the city came around every three years, it still passed their building,” she said. “They’re not thinking that they can reach out to the city, because the city has already OK’d this.”

Lafreniere said his agency tries to do what it can with its available personnel and resources. However, he was not able to say how many buildings were currently out of compliance with the local housing code or how that figure has changed over time. As of press time, he was also unable to provide data on the number and nature of the kind of violations they’re most commonly encountering, citing limitations in the city’s information systems.

In general, Lafreniere said the city tries to work cooperatively with both tenants and landlords. In some cases, that means giving landlords multiple chances to fix a problem; city records show it can sometimes take more than a dozen inspections before a building is deemed to be in compliance with the housing code.

Lafreniere also said the city has to treat every violation on a case by case basis. In other words, it can’t step up enforcement on a particular building or property owner just because they had lots of violations in the past.

While the city can take landlords to court if they don’t comply with orders to fix up their property, that’s not always successful. Lafreniere said it’s hard to get property owners to show up to those hearings, and judges often end up reducing the city’s penalties.

“It’s a challenging thing to do,” said Lafreniere. “You’re basically telling people what they can and can’t do with their property in the ‘Live Free or Die’ state, and that doesn’t always go over well.”

According to city records reviewed by NHPR, most of the fines issued against property owners since 2019 have gone uncollected. However, city officials said many of the same properties facing these citations have managed to achieve compliance by correcting the underlying deficiencies, even if the fines remain unpaid. Some of the properties in question also changed hands after the citations were imposed, and officials said in those cases they’re trying to ensure the new owners fix the outstanding issues, as well.

Frustration with slow enforcementA few of the tenants facing eviction on Wilson Street have found new places to live. Another tenant has until the start of the new year to do the same.

Luna is still trying to figure out what’s next for her family. Her eviction case was dropped after Daniels, her landlord, missed a court hearing. But she still wants to get out — if only she could find somewhere else. It’s been hard to find another place that fits her budget and has enough room for her family, but she also needs somewhere on the ground floor due to accessibility concerns.

When she hears people in power say their hands are tied, that there’s not more they can do to help families like hers, she doesn’t really buy it. As someone who relies on food stamps to feed her family, she knows firsthand what it’s like to try to keep up with government regulations.

“My feet are held to the fire,” she said.

If an extra $25 a month is enough to warrant cuts to her food stamps, she wonders, why is it so hard to apply the same level of scrutiny when it comes to the safety of her home?

“It’s not that difficult,” she said. “It’s not that complicated.”

If they really wanted to, Luna feels like the people in power could figure out how to hold landlords’ feet to the fire too.

This article is being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.

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