More apartments have been available for rent in Keene in recent years, despite a statewide trend that shows vacancies are decreasing.
Some local landlords attribute the increase to the recent development of housing targeted for certain groups, such as students and senior citizens. They also suggest that fewer Keene State College students are living off-campus.
But those affiliated with the new housing in the city and the college say the numbers are small, and should have no effect on vacancies.
Right now, it’s hard to determine the exact reasons for the city’s high vacancy rate, said Susan R. Thielen, coordinator at Heading for Home, a regional housing coalition.
But it is there, she said.
“If you drive around Keene, you see a lot of houses for rent.”
The N.H. Housing Finance Authority’s annual Residential Rental Cost Survey shows the state’s vacancy rate has been decreasing for the past few years. But during the same years, Keene’s number has been rising. For example, in Keene, the vacancy rate stands at 8 percent this year, when in 2009, it was 3.6 percent. That’s compared to the state, which is at 3.2 percent; in 2009, it was at 5.3 percent.
Vacancy rates are low in the state because most communities have not seen much development of apartment buildings, said Jane Law, director of communications for the housing finance authority.
But in Keene, “we have seen quite a bit of development since 2006,” said the city’s planning director, W. Rhett Lamb.
Different views on a cause
For the first time in 11 years, Wright Properties has a vacancy.
The company has 16 units across the city that are rented primarily to college students.
Manager Regina M. Wright said she’s noticed empty apartments on the rise in the past few years.
“It started to get shaky last year,” Wright said. “But this year was significant.”
Her son, Adam Wright, owner of the company, believes the vacancies are caused by private student housing and affordable and senior housing.
Private developers have focused on off-campus student housing, such as the Davis Street Apartments that opened last August and have 51 beds, and Arcadia Hall, a four-story building that will have 137 beds when it opens later this year.
Keene-based Southwestern Community Services completed a workforce apartment building within the last year, CitySide-Keene, on Water Street. All 20 units are occupied in that building.
In recent years, Southwestern also built two senior housing buildings — Keene East Senior Housing on Railroad Street and Railroad Square Senior Housing. There are 54 units for those 55 and older in the two buildings combined.
Bentley Commons, privately developed senior citizen housing, also opened in 2008 on Water Street.
William A. Marcello, chief executive officer for Southwestern, said the occupied units should not have an effect on the city’s vacancy rate because the number of apartments is small.
Adam Wright disagrees.
“You’re taking people out of the other units,” he said.
But for tenants — especially college students — the vacancy rates give them more apartment options.
That doesn’t mean rent is going down for all apartments, though. The median gross rental cost for a unit has mostly increased for the past 10 years. And this year, Keene’s median gross rental cost — at $1,014 — was slightly higher than the state’s $1,005.
Wright said his company decreased rent for three two-bedroom apartments this past year. Previously, rent was about $600 and did not include utilities. Now, rent is still about the same price but includes utilities.
“You decrease rent and hope you get somebody,” Wright said.
William A. Beauregard, owner of Colonial Rental Management, said his company has also seen more vacancies than usual, and he also thinks some of it is because of development.
“We’ve seen a little bit of softening in this market,” he said.
It doesn’t surprise Beauregard, he said, if college students are opting to rent from the newer student housing buildings rather than apartments that have been available in the past. Apartments that used to be rented by students or senior citizens are now empty, he said.
Some property managers say a decline in students living off-campus is also to blame for vacancies.
“I’ve been doing this for 10 years, and this is the biggest vacancy I’ve seen,” said Rick Grauer, a landlord with Keene Cribs, a family-run business that rents apartments to students. “This year has been a tough one.”
In an effort to create more of a connection to the college, Keene State College is requiring this year’s sophomore class to live on campus, according to Kent Drake-Deese, director of residential life and housing services at the college. There will be 976 sophomores living on campus; typically, Drake-Deese said, that number is about 100 less.
Last year, the college instituted a requirement for freshmen to live on campus. The current freshman class is about 1,200 students, which is similar to last year’s.
Although upperclassmen are not required to live on campus, there will be 425 living at the college this year, Drake-Deese said. That number has fluctuated in recent years.
Drake-Deese disagrees that the current vacancy problem is because of more students living on-campus. It was always a small number of freshmen and sophomores who chose to live off-campus, he said.
Not all think the increase in empty apartments is such a bad thing, though.
Both Thielen and Marcello said it could increase competition among landlords, creating nicer apartments, both said.
Or maybe, Thielen suggested, some of those homes typically rented to students can be sold for a lower price to young professionals.
In a few years, it might be easier to determine why the vacancy rate has been high, she said, but all anyone can do now is watch and speculate.
Jacqueline Palochko can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1409, or firstname.lastname@example.org.