What the Heck is Vacancy Rate?

If you’ve been following along with New Hampshire’s housing crisis, you’ve probably heard the experts talk about the state’s vacancy rate. Have you ever wondered what “vacancy rate” means or why we care so much about it?

Put very simply, vacancy rate refers to the percent of rental units that are unoccupied. According to New Hampshire Housing‘s “2019 Residential Rental Cost Survey,” the state’s vacancy rate is less than 1 percent (0.75 percent) for two-bedroom units statewide, and, similarly, in all but one of our ten counties, the vacancy rate is less than 1 percent. For comparison purposes, the national vacancy rate is 7 percent and the vacancy rate in the Northeast is 5 percent. Housing experts agree a vacancy rate between 4 and 5 percent is considered a balanced market in terms of supply and demand, meaning New Hampshire’s 1 percent vacancy rate is extraordinarily low, signaling an inadequate supply of rental units. 

How does this data translate to the human experience? There is no doubt we need more rental housing, but the severity of our limited supply means that even if you can afford an apartment in New Hampshire, it isn’t going to be easy to find one. I asked some young New Hampshire residents how they found their apartment, and what the experience apartment-hunting was like for them. Here’s what they said:

If you wait more than an hour past when an apartment was posted on CraigsList, you will not get that apartment you saw listed in Dover. Awful and grueling process.”

——

“I eventually found my apartment through Zumper, but that was after roughly making finding an apartment my second job. I had every listing site — CraigsList, Apartments.com, Zillow, Trulia, and Facebook — bookmarked on every device I own. Constantly refreshing and rechecking every hour. It was hard to even get a showing. Ultimately, I lucked into my current apartment.”

——

“This is precisely what brought me to Somersworth from Portsmouth! A friend needed a roommate and I wasn’t exactly looking to move to Somersworth, but my landlord was in the process of renovating and raising rents, plus the place was gorgeous and cheap, so I gave it a shot. I fell in love with Somersworth.”

Crystal and her pup, Daisy, outside her Somersworth home. Photo by Michael Scarlett.

That last quote is from Crystal Paradis, who was elected last fall to the Somersworth City Council (and the highest vote-getter on the Council to boot)! If you know Crystal, you understand what a huge loss this was for Portsmouth. Crystal was at least the 4th, but probably the 5th or 6th, generation of her family to be born in Portsmouth when she made the leap to Somersworth. After being displaced from her seven-year Portsmouth home when her landlord opted to renovate and raise the rents, Crystal, in the face of rising costs in Portsmouth, said goodbye to her hometown. After bouncing around a bit, she found her home in Somersworth. 

Ultimately, that is the relevance of vacancy rate: the shortage of available rental units causes communities to lose amazing people.

The kind of people who run for City Council. I wrote a piece last August titled, “How to Get Young People to Join a Board or Committee”, but I now realize I forgot a critical piece: if you’d like to engage young people, you need to create space for them to live and grow. When humans feel connected to where we live, we’re far more likely to take action to make it a better place. New Hampshire’s housing market makes it nearly impossible for young people, who aren’t ready to purchase a home, to find a place where they can settle down for the long haul. 

It’s been about five years since I last searched for an apartment, and I imagine it is more challenging now than it was then, but my experience was similar to the experiences of the young NH residents I spoke with. I was a happy Dover resident for nearly a decade, but when my landlord decided to sell, I struggled to keep up with the pace of the rental market, and I left.

The state’s extraordinarily low vacancy rate puts the burden on renters — young people, divorcees, and downsizers alike — but ultimately, it is communities that suffer. People like Crystal and me, who run for City Council and serve on the Planning Board, leave. We put down roots somewhere else.

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