In the spring, Simbex was looking to develop. The Lebanon-based medical device maker hoped to increase its workforce from 32 to 46.
The hiring market has been brutal; restaurants, main street stores, and businesses struggled to attract new employees and coax old ones. But Simbex had no trouble attracting employees. The real difficulty was finding accommodation for them.
“We would say, ‘Okay, you can start here in three months as long as you have a physical home address,’ and they would report to me that they would receive an email from an apartment complexâ¦ and before even being able to respond, the apartment was taken, âsaid Josh Lamoureux, director of people and culture for the company.â Or they’d see a Craigslist ad pop up, and they’d immediately email the person who would say to him: “Sorry, I have already received 14 offers.” “
With rents on the rise and rental openings rare, Simbex had to adjust its recruitment process. When the new hires accepted their job offers, the company asked them to be patient. Finding accommodation – and starting to work – can take months. Many recruits live out of state, all the way to Texas and California, which has added to the tension.
The company has been lucky so far. None of his recruits were afraid of the wait.
But at Dartmouth-Hitchcock, the Lebanon-based hospital network and New Hampshire’s largest employer, executives weren’t so lucky. Over the past year, the hospital has seen a number of talented recruits eagerly apply to the prestigious hospital, only to reluctantly withdraw.
âWorkers say, ‘I’m so excited to be working in Dartmouth, I’ve heard great things about it, the technology, you save lives, you have the most critical New Hampshire patients out there,’ then they call back and decline because “I can’t find an apartment,” David Duncan, vice president of facilities management at Dartmouth-Hitchcock, said at an affordable housing forum last week.
As businesses in New Hampshire and beyond compete for talent, the scarcity of affordable housing has become an undeniable constraint. Getting applicants and new hires to relocate to New Hampshire is just the first step. Finding a place for them to live is, for some, a higher priority.
â(If) someone is trying to come to New Hampshire for a job, you want that employee to stay,â said Rob Dapice, general manager of management and development at the New Hampshire Housing Finance Authority. âIt’s more likely that they will if they can buy their first home. “
To this end, NHHFA offers a combination of tools, ranging from down payment assistance to mortgage certificates, but they can only help against the market to a certain extent.
In the Upper Valley, where rents are among the highest in the state, the momentum has forced major players like Dartmouth-Hitchcock to find their way into the housing market. According to Duncan, the hospital system has tried everything. Each year, the hospital employs around 975 external collaborators, and each year 400 to 500 of them need housing. But because about 75% earn between $ 40,000 and $ 70,000 a year, finding affordable housing is difficult.
Median rents in the area start at around $ 1,900 per month. At this rate, a nurse or technician earning $ 40,000 should be spending 57% of their salary on rent – well above the recommended upper limit of 30%. If that same employee wanted an apartment that hit the 30% threshold, it would need a rent of about $ 1,000 a month – a near impossibility, Duncan said.
And with 98% of apartments occupied in the area, there isn’t a lot of opportunity to compare prices. The problem has exacerbated the acute shortage of healthcare workers nationwide, a long-standing problem exacerbated by the pandemic.
âAnyone who has a degree or skills in health care is being furiously recruited, anywhere,â Duncan said.
The housing shortage for the workforce is just one of many forces weighing on the region’s housing market, said Julia Griffin, Director of the City of Hanover.
Throughout the pandemic, Lebanon and its surroundings have become one of the country’s top destinations for people looking to escape city life and buy new homes. In April, Lebanon was the metropolitan area with the seventh highest increase in net immigration to the United States, according to a New York Times analysis of US Postal Service data.
Meanwhile, attendance at Dartmouth College has increased and the availability of housing for graduate and undergraduate students has become equally difficult to find. The effect: Students who could be housed in new dormitories at the college instead take apartments that could have been occupied by hospital workers and technicians. And affluent buyers continue to use cash purchases to buy homes, sometimes without any interest in inspections or even viewings.
âA unit shortage is a unit shortage, and at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter who runs out of units,â Griffin says. “You just know that you are missing a whole lot of housing and that the market is not performing very well as a result.”
Add to that a sobering long-term picture: New Hampshire and Upper Vermont Valley need to build around 10,000 new homes by 2030 in order to meet the region’s workforce needs and stabilize housing and rental economics, Griffin says. That’s according to a report by a commission of regional planning experts in New Hampshire and Vermont known as the “Keys to the Valley.” From 2011 to 2020, the region added just 4,000 new units, the report notes.
A solution to the housing development problem will not happen overnight, say stakeholders. In the meantime, employers are locked into fierce competition.
At Simbex, the management team has shifted into high gear, with members frantically finding as many apartment listings as possible and forwarding them to their new hires.
âI asked each person to recommend realtors and we got together as a group,â Lamoureux said. “But it was a fight.”
Dartmouth-Hitchcock, for its part, has a human resources employee whose only job is to find housing for new hires. In the past six months, this employee has helped 194 people, Duncan said.
The hospital is also working to offer housing incentives to keep new employees on board when an apartment opens, such as free rent for the first three months and subsidized rent for up to two years, said Duncan. But the hospital remains at the mercy of the market.
Dartmouth-Hitchcock tried to build their own homes on 40 acres of land. But between the increase in development costs and the authorization requirement, this solution is years away. For now, the hospital is partnering with as many owners and developers as possible. They call owners to ask what’s available now and what might be available in the future, and they’ve extended their search radius to anything within a 30-minute drive, including the entire city ââof Lebanon.
âWe are working and trying to secure every piece of inventory so that we can provide housing for our employees,â Duncan said. âSo when they apply for a job, we can say, ‘Hey, guess what: we’ve got housing’, so we don’t have that drop.”
This approach has had mixed results. In April, Lebanese city officials approved a proposal to convert a former hotel that was damaged in a fire and explosion in 2019 into housing, according to Valley News. This new hotel, the Element Hotel, which is expected to cost between $ 1,500 and $ 1,900 per month, will be largely occupied by Dartmouth-Hitchcock employees, one of the developers told the zoning board.
However, when the hospital gathered a group of newly hired employees to tour the hotel, some rejected it, saying it looked too much like a dormitory. And while the hospital’s aggressive approach may lead to short-term victories, the maneuvers come at the expense of other employers, Duncan admitted.
” What does it do ? It hurts all the employees of our partners here, âhe said. ” We do not have the choice. We need clinicians to take care of patients in the hospital, and we are in fierce competition.
Griffon agrees. With so much competition, even new real estate developments offer only a temporary respite. âIt’s really a Whack-a-mole game,â she said.
âUntil we go much further and build these units, that will continue to be problematic in this region,â Griffin said.
Lamoureux hopes that the developers will eventually meet the need.
âI think as a community – and investors and builders – I think everyone is reacting to this,â he said. âSo I think a solution will come. I don’t think it will get worse until it gets better.
As he spoke, however, Lamoureux couldn’t help but notice a plan to build an apartment building, visible just outside his window. He had been sitting for over a year.