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Repairing our foundations

Over the past couple of years, a group of local religious leaders has been meeting every two weeks. Some serve as clergy and others are religiously-steeped community leaders in other roles. We have been reflecting on our own perspectives and work related to justice. As we recommended readings to each other and discussed them each month, we found ourselves circling over and over to one issue in addition to the others we already work on: affordable housing.

Housing doesn’t have the same emotional pull on us as hunger or disease. Housing is structural, literally and figuratively. It’s one of the foundations under everything else in our community.

As The Telegraph reported this week, the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Nashua is $1,456, an increase of about 7 percent just in a year. The general rule of thumb is that a person cannot afford to spend more than 30 percent of gross income on housing. So for that average rental, a person living in our community would need to earn more than $58,000 a year.

That’s far above the median income in Nashua. The average Nashua fire fighter’s salary is not that high. No teacher or nurse in our district reaches that with less than ten years of experience. Someone coming out of college or transitional housing is not likely to earn at that level right away.

We need more low-cost, safe and stable housing for anyone – single people, families of any size. More housing means better learning for the many children who don’t now have a stable place to rest, play, eat a healthy meal, and study. A stable place to come home to is a basic “social determinant of health” – a factor in every kind of recovery, physical and emotional.

And housing is about the kind of community we want to have. We know that our region can’t grow if people can’t afford it here. We can also be tighter-knit if the people who work in and serve our community can also make lives here. If we want a place where people of different cultural backgrounds or income levels are truly one community, we need to think about where and how more housing is created. Housing can segregate or bring people together.

The only way to make housing more affordable across the board is to substantially increase the availability of housing of every variety. High school economics – increasing supply shifts the equilibrium toward lower prices. Estimates we have heard for how many new units of housing Nashua needs range from 2,000 to 4,000.

There are all kinds of dials to fiddle with to get there. Build more apartment complexes. Renovate existing apartments or attached homes to create additional spaces. Convert more existing non-housing structures. Encourage or give incentives for more people to build accessory dwellings on their property. Build up from existing structures. There must be more.

There are public policies involved, from set-asides to zoning to taxes, on the municipal and county and state levels. There are financing models, public and private, to be explored. It’s not only about what happens in the city, but Greater Nashua.

Deciding on the mix should be a political process that involves as many citizens as possible thinking about ethics, economics, and a vision of our community. We as faith leaders want to encourage that and invite more people in. So next weekend at least eight of us will be speaking from our pulpits about housing. About “repairing our foundations.”

And then for those who want to learn more, whether you are part of our congregations or not, we invite you to an educational program on Sunday, Oct. 20 from 4:00-5:30 p.m. at Temple Beth Abraham, 4 Raymond Street. We’ll have stations where you can learn statistics and stories and approaches, share your thoughts, and meet with people planning for next steps. Registration is encouraged (https://tinyurl.com/yyhvw8qz).

I don’t think many of us who attended seminaries thought zoning, finance and community planning would become our languages. Fortunately, others in town have been getting to work on this too in parallel. We hope to play our part by bringing more people to the table and making sure issues of justice are represented.

We hope like us you will learn more, and help repair and build our community’s foundations.

Jon Spira-Savett is the rabbi serving Temple Beth Abraham, a board member of the Nashua Area Interfaith Council, and a member of the Interfaith Housing Justice Group.