Saturday, November 14, 2009

Bellingham, WA – Durham, NH. Sister Cities in Trouble?

Below is a letter from a resident of Durham, NH by the name of Karen Mullaney that appeared in the 13 November edition of the Foster’s Daily Democrat. I spoke with Karen, along time resident, on the phone after reading her letter. (You can read the original by clicking here) My last blog entry (click here) was about the existence of a Rental Housing Commission in Durham and a suggestion that Bellingham may want to craft such a commission to deal with the totality of the issues around rental housing, many of which are mentioned by Karen.

Here is her story, whose contents you will find familiar. It is not only about students, but it is also about landlords, parents, city governments and university officials. You cannot tell the tale about rental markets in university towns without dealing with this cast list. Admittedly, there are other players, such as young wage earners, singles and couples, who have nothing to do with academe and contribute to the problem as well. However, when 8-10,000 or more students seek a dwelling for the school year, you achieve critical mass in that which becomes the “big enchilada” of the rental market.

The city of Durham's permanent population is about 12,000, however, it doubles during the school year. Although the university has almost enough housing for its student population (Is that not a novel idea?) the gradual elimination of fraternity and sorority houses, coupled with a desire by some students to live off campus unfettered by pesky rules, has begun the inevitable undesirable infill and nuisances that Bellingham knows too well.

While Durham is in 'big trouble,' few seem to care

Friday, November 13, 2009

Driving down Madbury Road in Durham early Sunday morning, I was once again reminded that this town is in big trouble. Front yards littered with beer cans where families once lived. This weekend was Halloween, but that is just this week's excuse. This is the norm for UNH students now.

Judging by the amount of cans in sight, this school has a drinking problem and Durham has a student problem. When I moved to Durham with young children in 1975, it was thought to be the ultimate place to live; a small pretty town with nice homes and good schools. Most students lived in dorms or Greek housing. Many people rented small apartments in their homes. Living in a college town was thought to be a plus. What happened?

I guess these things begin when there are more admitted students than available dorm rooms. Students move into existing apartment complexes, one by one renters leave, because of noise and negative changes in their previously comfortable homes. (Park Ct.) Duplexes, that once housed young families and faculty (Coe Dr.), are infected because out- of-state parents buy a unit for their child and fill it with several others, to make a profit, and the remaining duplexes fall like dominoes. As this process spreads, the surrounding neighbors can't sell their homes and have to rent and finally sell to someone who is going to make a buck with very little effort. Living in another state, using a corporate name on the deed, once a year hiring someone to do the repairs, they never have to see what is going on.

Durham has had some bad press lately. A previous commentary spoke about treating absentee landlords as businesses. These absentee landlords are usually paying low taxes because of the poor condition of these properties, while those of us who have invested in and improved ours pay some of the highest bills in the state.

The town government spends months debating bridges and dams, fighting business in various parts of town, while inviting more student housing in the middle of town because now the buzz word around here is tax base. — to ease the tax burden.

Maybe we can start picking up the beer cans and turn them in for cash to reduce that burden. The town actually thinks that "mixed use" (read student apartments above empty stores) and the 55 plus crowd are the answer. Well guess what? It's too expensive for most seniors and soon no one is going to want to buy a house here. I certainly have stopped recommending it. Not only do the current sellers have to deal with the economic housing crisis, they, they have to deal with the student sprawl. Everyone in town can point to once nice homes now destroyed by this virus.

Don't think it doesn't affect you if you live in the outskirts or on the bay. You won't want to come into town for anything because there will be only students and stores to fill their needs and the surrounding properties will be trashed Take a drive to Amherst, Mass. for a look into the future. South of Pleasant St., only Emily Dickinson's house is not a rental, yet! As for managed student housing; those owners are doing a good job and have made substantial improvement, but they still have vacancies midyear because some students want to be free to party and trash.

Does the university have a part to play? Sorry to report "Durham, It's where U live," friendly warnings to the incoming freshman and all the other idyllic responses aren't cutting it. The students don't care and their parents, who let them live like this, don't care.

The administration can't possibly look around on a weekend and think everything is OK. Are they so desperate to fill seats that they need this motley bunch? I know we can't go back to the good old days, but are there no rules or consequences anymore at UNH? Would they want the tours that are held for perspective students and parents to take place on a Saturday night?

I know I have repeated much that has been said before, but it is time for the town and university to get their heads out of the sand. The town must find some way to require these owners to be responsible for what they have created. In the meantime the surrounding owners should continue to complain to the police, town and University. Find the owners name on the tax list and call them repeatedly to complain.

We have a lot at stake.

Karen Mullaney

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