New affordable apartments in downtown Portsmouth

PORTSMOUTH — The first resident of the Portsmouth Housing Authority’s 64-unit, below-market-rate downtown housing project has moved into her new home.

Chelsea Chase, who works in Portsmouth, had to begin looking for a new apartment in late February when she got bad news about the rent for the apartment where she was living.

“So the rent, they doubled it, not just increased it, they doubled it,” she said as she stood in her new Portsmouth Housing Authority apartment, which features new appliances, high ceilings and large windows.

A friend sent Chase a story saying the PHA was taking applications for units in the new Ruth Lewin Griffin Place development. She applied the next day.

“I was trying to get in as soon as possible, I knew it was going to be a hot item,” Chase said Thursday.

Asked if she would have been able to afford to stay in Portsmouth if not for the PHA’s project, Chase said, “Probably not, the prices are through the roof. And it’s not that I don’t make a decent living.”

“This is incredible, I love the big window and great light,” she added.

As excited as Chase is about her new home, PHA Executive Director Craig Welch said, “I’m even more excited, we’ve been working on this for years.”

There are 48 one-bedroom apartments and 16 two-bedrooms in the taupe-colored four-story building, which is located off Court Street next to the Central Fire Station.

“So far we’ve got 350 people who’ve applied, so we’ll have no problem filling it up,” Welch said Thursday as he gave a tour of the new building.

Rents for the units are substantially lower than market rate apartments in the city, especially compared to other downtown locations, where the PHA built its new facility.

The rents are based on HUD income guidelines and also differ depending on how many people live in the household, Welch said.

For example, to be considered for a one-bedroom unit, a person must make less than $57,000. If they earn between $50,000 and $57,000 annually, the rent — which includes heat and hot water — would be $1,300 a month.

The rent is based on three income bands, Welch said. So for someone who makes less than $40,000, the rent for a one-bedroom unit would be about $1,000 a month.

He expects the two-bedroom apartments to rent for more, but still substantially less than what someone would pay for an apartment rented at market rate.

“To have one of these two bedroom units downtown between $1,200 and $1,600 a month, that’s a home run,” he said.

By comparison, the median rental rate in 2021 in Portsmouth for a one-bedroom apartment was $1,665 and it was $1,881 for two-bedroom units, according to the New Hampshire Housing Finance Authority's annual report. Rental prices have only gone up since that time, with many tenants saying they received sharp increases late in 2021 and early 2022.

The development features a deck off the fourth floor with tables and chairs for residents, along with great views of downtown.

“You’re right in the heart of things, you can see all three bridges,” Welch said with a broad smile as he showed visitors the deck. “It’s very cool.”

There will be a couple of families with kids living in the building, which is close to public outdoor spaces and parks.

“Imagine what it’s like to live in this place with a kid who goes to middle school right next door,” Welch said.

There’s also a new public park located between the new project and the adjacent Feaster Apartments, which is also owned and operated by the PHA.

There is a lobby and community room in the first floor of the building that offers free Wi-Fi to all building residents, Welch said.

“I think that’s going to be kind of a living room for a lot of people,” he added.

The new building should be filled with residents by the end of July, Welch predicted.

“This is the largest expansion of our portfolio, and therefore the largest expansion of affordable housing in the city in almost 50 years, since the Margeson (Apartments were) finished in 1973,” Welch said, referencing another PHA property.

Between 1959 and 1973, the PHA built 421 units, but since then has added just the 64 in the new Griffin development, Welch said.

But he expects that to change with more development of affordable housing.

“We’re a local nonprofit housing developer and we decided back in 2016 that that was going to be part of our strategic plan,” he said.

He stressed New Hampshire is in “an affordable housing crisis,” and the PHA is determined to help address it.

“The 350 people who have applied here would like us to continue to do that,” he said.

It’s unlikely that anyone who has yet to apply for an apartment in the new project will get a unit in the near future, but he encouraged everyone to apply.

“You never know what’s going to change,” he added.

There is a preference for applicants who are either veterans or who work in Portsmouth, Welch said.