In the spring, Simbex wanted to expand. The Lebanon-based manufacturer of medical devices wanted to increase its workforce from 32 to 46.
The hiring market was brutal; Restaurants, high street shops, and shops struggled to attract new employees and win back old ones. But Simbex had no problems recruiting employees. The real difficulty was to accommodate them.
“We said, ‘Okay, you can start here in three months on the condition that you have a physical address,’ and they told me they were getting an email from an apartment complex … and before they could even reply . “The apartment has been taken,” said Josh Lamoureux, the company’s director of people and culture. “Or they saw a Craigslist ad and immediately emailed the person who said, ‘Sorry, I already have 14 listings.'”
With rising rents and tight rental offers, Simbex had to adapt its hiring process. When new employees accepted their job offers, the company asked them to be patient. Looking for an apartment – and getting started in professional life – can take months. Many of the recruits live outside of the state, as far away as Texas and California, which added to tensions.
So far, the company has been lucky. None of his employees let themselves be put off waiting.
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 applying to the prestigious hospital, only to be reluctant to resign.
“The workers say, ‘I’m so excited to work in Dartmouth, I’ve heard great things about the technology, you’re saving lives, you have the most critical patients up there in New Hampshire,’ and then they call.” back and decline because ‘I can’t find a place to live’, “said David Duncan, Vice President of Facility Management at Dartmouth-Hitchcock, at a forum on affordable housing last week.
As businesses compete for talent in New Hampshire and beyond, the lack of affordable housing has become an undeniable barrier. Getting applicants and new hires interested in moving to New Hampshire is only the first step. For some, finding a place to live is a higher priority.
“(When) someone is trying to come to New Hampshire for a job, you want them to stay,” said Rob Dapice, chief executive officer, management and development for the New Hampshire Housing Finance Authority. “They’re more likely to do it when they can buy their first home.”
To that end, NHHFA offers a mix of tools from down payment assistance to mortgage loan certificates, but they can only help against the market to a limited extent.
In the Upper Valley, where rents are among the highest in the state, dynamism has forced big players like Dartmouth-Hitchcock to penetrate the housing market. As Duncan says, the hospital system has tried everything. Every year the hospital takes on around 975 external employees, of which 400 to 500 need accommodation each year. But with about 75 percent making between $ 40,000 and $ 70,000 a year, affordable housing is hard to find.
Median rents in the region start at around $ 1,900 per month. At that rate, a $ 40,000 nurse or technician would have to spend 57 percent of their salary on rent – far more than the recommended limit of 30 percent. If the same employee wanted an apartment that met the 30 percent threshold, the rent would have to be about $ 1,000 a month – an almost impossible option, Duncan said.
And 98 percent of the homes in the area don’t have a lot of options for comparison. The problem has exacerbated the acute shortage of health workers at the national level, a long-standing problem exacerbated by the pandemic.
“Anyone with a degree or healthcare skill is being recruited everywhere,” said Duncan.
The housing shortage for workers is only one of several forces that are pushing the housing market in the region, said Julia Griffin, city director of Hanover.
During the pandemic, Lebanon and its environs became one of the most popular travel destinations in the country for people looking to escape urban life and buy new homes. In April, Lebanon was the metropolitan area with the seventh-largest increase in net immigration in the United States, according to a New York Times analysis of data from the US Postal Service.
Meanwhile, Dartmouth College has grown in attendance and housing availability for graduate and undergraduate students is just as difficult to find. The effect: students who could be accommodated in new college dormitories are instead taking apartments that may have been occupied by hospital staff and technicians. And wealthy buyers continue to use cash purchases to buy homes, sometimes with no interest in inspections or even visits.
“A shortage of units is a shortage of units, and at the end of the day it doesn’t matter who is short,” says Griffin. “You just know that you are missing a number of residential units and that the market is therefore not working very well.”
Add to this a sobering long-term picture: New Hampshire and Vermont’s Upper Valley will have to build around 10,000 new homes by 2030 to meet the region’s labor needs and stabilize the housing and rental economy, Griffin says. This comes from a report by a commission of regional planning experts from 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 said.
A solution to the housing problem will not come overnight, say those involved. Until then, employers are exposed to fierce competition.
At Simbex, the leadership team is up and running and members are desperately looking for as many apartment listings as possible and passing them on to their new employees.
“I’ve had every single person recommending brokers and we have come together as a group,” Lamoureux said. “But it was a fight.”
For his part, Dartmouth-Hitchcock has a member of staff in the human resources department whose only job is to find an apartment for new employees. In the past six months, this employee has helped 194 people, Duncan said.
The hospital is also working on offering residential 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, Duncan said. But the hospital remains at the mercy of the market.
Dartmouth-Hitchcock has attempted to build its own housing on 40 acres. But this solution is still years away between the increased development costs and the need for approval. Right now the hospital is working with as many landlords and developers as possible. They call home owners asking what’s available now and what might be available in the future, and they’ve expanded their search radius to anything within a 30 minute drive, including the entire city of Lebanon.
“We work and try to secure every single piece of inventory so we can provide housing to our employees,” said Duncan. “So when they apply for a job, we can say ‘Hey, guess what, we have apartments’ so we don’t get that decline.”
This approach has had mixed results. In April, officials in the Lebanese city approved a proposal to convert a former hotel that had been damaged in a fire and explosion in 2019, into residential units, according to Valley News. The new hotel, the Element Hotel, which is expected to bill for $ 1,500 to $ 1,900 per month, will be mostly filled with Dartmouth-Hitchcock employees, one of the developers told the zoning board.
However, when the hospital brought a group of recently hired staff together to look at the hotel, some turned it down, saying it felt too much like a dormitory. And even if the hospital’s aggressive approach can lead to short-term victories, the maneuvers are at the expense of other employers, Duncan admitted.
“What does it make? That harms all of our partners’ employees here, ”he said. “We have no choice. We need clinicians to look after the patients in the hospital and we face tough competition. “
Griffin agrees. With so much competition, even new housing developments offer only a temporary respite. “It’s really a whack-a-mole game,” she said.
“Until we are much further down the road and have these units built, this will continue to be problematic in this region,” said Griffin.
Lamoureux hopes the developers will eventually meet the need.
“I think as a community – and as investors and builders – I think everyone is responding,” he said. “So I think there will be a solution. I don’t think it’ll get worse before it gets better. “
As he spoke, however, Lamoureux couldn’t help but notice a residential project that was visible just outside his window. It had sat for over a year.