Rehab It, Make It Free and They Will Come

I was reading one of the articles I posted about yesterday, and had an idea that could completely change Berlin.

Offer a free apartment to any four year college graduate under 30 (or 35, or 28) who will settle in Berlin.

Berlin suffers from a brain drain. Too few young, creative people stay or return to Berlin. As in other places, “the best kids go while the ones with the biggest problems stay, and then we have to deal with their kids in the schools in the next generation.” Those that do stay or that come back are expected to shoulder more than their share of the burden within the community. Berlin needs more creative, educated young people to serve as the foundation for the city.
So how do you get them there? Berlin has an overabundance of housing, some of which will be demolished in the next few years using Neighborhood Stabilization Program funds. What about renovating some of those properties, but instead of turning them into low income houses turn them into free apartments for the people the city needs most.
This plan could work. Use NSP money to buy apartment buildings in need of rehabilitation, and then use BIDPA funds to restore them. Or, if you have to, use all BIDPA money so it avoids the rules associated with government money. Then advertise free places to live for driven people with four year degrees around the southern part of the state, Massachusetts and Maine.
New York City, which has astronomical rents, has a similar program for office space. They have few entrepreneurs compared to Silicon Valley or Boston because the brightest minds are often hired by big firms; the barriers new firms face are too high. The city has started to subsidize office space for start-ups in an effort to build the entrepreneurial culture.
Berlin could do the same thing. The city doesn’t have money, but it does have housing. Offer free rent—residents pay utilities—in a city-owned apartment building. The city would own the property, which, if the city grew, would increase in value. The building would become a solid investment. The city would get new blood and new money, and the people there would build ties within the community. Maybe some of them would move out, but many of them would stay. They would start businesses, get married and buy houses of their own. They would become the city’s next generation, mixing with the few entrepreneurs who stayed.
There would be no reason not to offer this to people from Berlin as well as those from away. The city could stop sending its smartest and best educated kids to Manchester and Boston and reap some of the investment it makes in its youth. It would be a cheap incentive to bring some of them back, and at the same time it would clean up more of the blight.

This is an example of the type of non-traditional thinking Berlin should be employing to figure out how it will move into the next century. Would it work? I don’t know. Go ahead and shoot holes in it, but then propose your own idea of how Berlin can reinvent itself.
Need inspiration? Check out this study from the Chronicle of Higher Education. That’s where I got my idea, maybe it’ll help with yours.

13 thoughts on “Rehab It, Make It Free and They Will Come

  1. I have a four year degree and am under the ages you proposed. However, the flaw in that plan is that if I were to move to Berlin, there aren't any jobs in which my knowledge of Electrical Engineering could be properly used.Regardless of free housing, these "bright minds" still need a place to work and prosper. The jobs need to come first, the bright minds will follow the jobs. Berlin needs to promote business now and entrepreneurship once the economy stabilizes there.Good ideas but they need a touch of reality.Berlin could benefit from cheap energy, which would entice companies looking to save money to relocate. Data centers and light industrial could certainly thrive in Berlin with the low cost of living and future availability of cheap energy.

  2. I agree with Mathew that the four year degree student and beyond is an absolute pipe dream to convince to come to Berlin strictly based on affordable housing without sufficient income to attract them. The properties geared up for demolition are beyond their economic means and the remainder do not have high vacancy rates to begin with. In all honesty, surplus housing in this city isn't an issue as a result of grants to eliminate some eyesores and some suspicious fires. With the influx of 200+ families next year, despite even a downward trend in the national economy, Berlin will have a rebound in its economy directly related to the federal prison and will also experience a housing shortage. Biomass will have nothing to do with any of this as any benefit will be felt many years down the road. You will note that Matt calls the benefit "cheap energy" or in other words potentially cheaper heat with Laidlaw as he is well aware that the company has agreed with PSNH not to offer breaks on electricity synergies at all. Would we have expected any different arrangements from either Laidlaw or PSNH? Apparently not, as they are not willing to offer the rate payer a 10% discount with Clean Power either. Jon

  3. Matthew –That arrangement may not be for you, but that doesn't make it invalid. I am also of the same demographic, and I can work from anywhere. So can my wife, a non-profit consultant. So can most web designers, computer programmers, writers, photographers and artists. Young entrepreneurs looking to start businesses could take advantage of the arrangement. While I agree the plan wouldn't work for those people looking for a steady 9 to 5 job, for many people it could work. Or, at least stumbling block you point out doesn't kill its validity.Jon –Many of the houses will also be rehabbed, turned into low and moderate income housing. To say there are no buildings this would work in isn't true. Sure, lots of houses have to come down, but there are plenty of properties this could work for.I do imagine such an idea would be detrimental to your business in the short term, but in the long term I think it would help real estate to get new people up here. Sorry to hear you aren't on board. I'll keep trying to think up new plans the city can use, see if I can win you over.Incidently, neither CPD nor Laidlaw can offer cheap electricity unless the city builds there own electric grid. I learned this at the Community EFSEC Advisory Committee. Once electricity hits the transmission lines it becomes the same regulated electricity everyone gets. Unless the city invests in a municipal grid, which would keep it completely separate from the existing grid, there will never be dirt cheap electricity for the city. District heating? Great idea. But don't hold your breath for power.

  4. Erik,The idea definitely has merit…..but logistically may have problems…. I like your way of thinking though…It is this kind of thinking that needs to be done to get this city back on track.I hear a lot of people say "I wish Berlin had this, or I wish Berlin had that" naming national stores or businesses, or restaurants as things they'd like to see. Or at times, other people say "why doesn't Berlin have a good Thai restaurant, Italian restaurant, candle-pin bowling or more things for kids…" (I could use 100 examples of things Berlin does not have that some people see as desirable.)Recently, with all the talk of the 21/21 initiative and attracting outdoor enthusiasts of all types to Berlin, I hear "why doesn't Berlin have a nice place to stay…a hotel, a campground, a bed and breakfast etc…."I hear it all the time….and at times I agree, but I understand why many of these things are not here, and may never be….its simple economics…..which to me begins with one thing: JOBS.Yes, a few dozen or a few hundred ATV riders on weekends will be a boom for some local businesses, and maybe it will sprout a few other businesses to open….(Thai restaurant ?) hopefully with a few good jobs or entrepreneurial opportunities associated with them, but I don't see that as sustaining the community….. (Although it is a great start….)Safety concerns aside, I am very excited to see this trail open…..it will help put Berlin on the map in a POSITIVE WAY.The reality is, however, that most of these things are not here because they would NOT SURVIVE HERE…. there is simply not enough economic base for some of these businesses to have profitable business models….. In the few short months that I have been on the council, that is one of the things that surprises me the most… we don't seem to be being pro-active enough to attract, stimulate, or create jobs. If I decide to run again and am fortunate enough to win, I am going to work to CREATE JOBS for the 4 years that I serve….If I don't decide to serve on the council again, I will invest more into this community and hopefully be able to create a few jobs privately…Your article in the Berlin Reporter about Yoparts.com was interesting…and exciting, as I feel that Berlin may be attractive to those types of businesses….service related businesses(ie insurance companies, sales companies, tech companies, internet start ups, etc….can you imagine if a company like Facebook was to call Berlin home with some 700+ employees?Berlin will probably never have a great transportation infrastructure capable of profitably sustaining manufacturing or heavy industry…These kinds of companies simply cannot afford to be in Berlin due to sheer logistics….this is not Berlin's fault.Your article on YoParts.com proved that tech companies, however can easily call Berlin home, and Berlin could actually be desirable to the right small company with initiatives like cheap housing, low overhead etc…..that's where I agree in principle with your idea… (continued on next post, apparently there is a 4,096 character limit)

  5. With that said, back to Berlin's glut of housing….. To me, that is Berlin's number one problem at the moment. We simply have more housing units (apartments and homes) than we do JOBS to support them. Its no secret. This has caused the demand for welfare housing to increase…. importing welfare individuals, families etc people into Berlin with no job, no will to find a job, (no hope of getting a job even if they actually wanted to)and creating a strain on our resources, not to mention making Berlin less than attractive to live in. I work in the state prison, and more than half of the people I work with don't live in Berlin, and would not consider moving here, in part because of this…. I find that amazing (but I completely understand)that some people would rather commute 30 mins. to an hour even though they could buy an affordably priced house only minutes away. Simply put, until we rid ourselves of this welfare problem, Berlin will NEVER be a desirable place to live. Yes- you can hide by living in a better neighborhood…(there are some very nice neighborhoods in Berlin.) Yes,you could choose to ignore all of the trash piled up in front of these buildings, the people sitting around on their front porches 18 hours a day in their pajamas drinking, smoking, swearing at their kids….Yes, you could ignore the rush on cigarettes, liquor and beer every 5th of the month at local stores….the long line of people in front of you at your nearest convenience store wreaking of heavy smoke complaining that the store has run out of the latest $20 or $30 scratch ticket……Yes, you ignore the long wait at the Emergency Room with your child's ear infection while these same people use it like a walk in clinic to complain that they have run out of Vicodin, Percocet, OxyContin etc…. (they are in severe pain you know….)Yes, you could ignore the fact that you can't get your child into the summer reading program at school because these people (who don't have to pay for the program) use it as free babysitting……or the fact that hot lunch now costs almost $2 in order, in part, to subsidize all the "unable to afford" kids, who's parents just emptied the above rolls of $20 scratch tickets….Yes, you could ignore the fact that when you have a real emergency the police are probably busy dealing with the constant flow of domestic issues on the east side…..so they won't be able to help you right away….Yes, you could ignore all of these things….believe me I try….But I shouldn't have to ignore them….. I want them to change. (continued again…..I guess I reall ranted….

  6. Your ideas could be the beginning of that change. If someone came to me and said "If I brought a small company of 25 employees all with $40,000 salaries and good benefits, could the city find my employees and I some affordable housing?" The answer would be yes….. (It may not be free, but it could be very inexpensive….)A few other ideas that have come to my mind would be to offer incentive to multi-unit owners or purchasers to convert these buildings to single family homes… This could reduce the amount of available apartments, increase the tax base, and help provide low cost homes for EMPLOYED people. I agree that this would not work in all neighborhoods, or for all buildings, but could work in some neighborhoods…increasing the value of surrounding homes in the process…. If we could take 100 housing units out of circulation without reducing tax base, it would surely be a start…..Also, the city currently has an industrial building on Granite Street that has been empty for years…..which it has been trying to sell for $41,800. The building is in rough shape, but could be given to the right business as a home base if that business would agree to bring in a certain amount of jobs etc….for a certain amount of time. The city housing coordinator told me that it would probably be town down….using NSP money (its in a targeted neighborhood) and possibly turned into a park…… (another park?) I'd rather see it renovated and used to save some tax base and possibly provide 10,20,30 good jobs…. (are you listening YoParts.com?)Anyway Erik, sorry about ranting……as always, keep up the good work….. hopefully someday some of these good ideas can be tweaked, the logistics worked out, and possibly put to good use to make Berlin a better place to LIVE, WORK, and VISIT.PS. You are a perfect example of the type of person Berlin needs…. HAVE YOU MOVED TO BERLIN YET?Ryan Landry

  7. Eric, Such a program wouldn't be detrimental to the real estate business locally for any time period. Any decrease in vacancy rate helps the real estate market even if the unit produces zero income. I must be mistaken as I wasn't aware that the city was going into the business of ownership and/or sale of renovated properties for low and moderate income. I was of the impression that low and moderate income households might qualify for some of this grant money to fix up their places. If you are correct, I agree that such a program could work well. If the city's job, though, is to mow over buildings and renovate for the low and moderate income property owner, I can't see them renting out the second or third floor apartment above where they live for free. They can't afford to.The fact of the matter is that this city does not have a high vacancy rate of rentable units; it has a high vacancy rate of non-rentable units, most of which are on the tear down list and are not economically feasible to restore in order to obtain $600 rentals let alone $0 dollar rentals.Ryan hits the nail on the head. He wants a better clientele in many of Berlin's units. Boy do we all. Your ideas in general, Erik, I think have a great deal of merit. There are four year graduates that can take advantage of our computer age and live where ever they wish. Last year I sold one of the more pricier Gorham properties to one such individual. I'm sure someone just starting out in that situation would take advantage of zero rent. I'd love to see them take the place of some of these human beings in the city. So thank you for educating me to disagree with Mathew. For a moment there I was quite concerned. Jon

  8. Jon,It's not a matter of agreeing or disagreeing with me. My point remains that young professionals would not relocate to an area that offered free housing if their aren't any jobs. Individuals in this demographic would be more apt to move to an area where they would have to pay for housing, but there was a company located nearby where he/she could work for. There may be a small number of individuals that may be enticed by an offer like this, but they will not be working at economy-stimulating jobs that Berlin needs.Just my thoughts.Kind of humorous: the word verification below spells "berlings". Matthew

  9. Matthew needs to realize that we've entered a post industrial period, good jobs are not necessarily linked to large boilers and 300' stacks. Sorry Matthew, you may have to move to China or India to get a job. The planet can't tolerate enough Laidlaw type plants to employ all those mechanical engineers.

  10. Eric, Just a thought from your previous post. As the primary paper and journalist in the Berlin area wouldn't it make sense for you and your paper to also be added to the PUC list on the Clean Power complaint against PSNH to keep up to date? As this docket fills up it would be nice to have some reporting from you as well as Barbara. Jon

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