A walk around Meredith shows both sides of New Hampshire.
The lakeside homes offer an idyllic seasonal destination for a summer getaway. Along Wagon Wheel Trail, a short, unpaved street on Meredith Bay in Lake Winnipesaukee, sits the city’s most expensive residential property amid a row of million-dollar homes.
The owners of the 11,000 square foot log home that sits on seven acres of land behind tall black iron gates hail from Stamford, Connecticut. They paid $7.8 million for the home in 2009. More than a decade later, its price has doubled, with the city valuing the property at $14.5 million.
Some neighbors live there year-round, but come on Memorial Day, Massachusetts, Connecticut license plates. California and Florida populate the driveways and zip along the city roads.
New Hampshire is known as a great place to raise a family, start a career, and enjoy a natural playground – from the White Mountains to the Lake District and the ocean shores. These are all things that heads of state brag about, but they obscure the day-to-day reality of many residents living below the poverty line. Meredith is no exception.
Meredith’s identity, like much of New Hampshire, is displayed by the wealth of some of its residents and also the poverty of others.
Further into town, just past high school, the True Road prefab houses show the other half of Meredith. Dotted around the cloverleaf neighborhood, homes at Interlakes Mobile Home Park are priced between $30,000 and $50,000, some of the lowest in the city.
During the summer months, the city’s population increases from 6,000 to 20,000. With more residents, there is a greater need for employees to stock grocery store shelves, manage drive-thru windows and work in the city services.
But New Hampshire can be a tough place to make a living, especially in a seasonal town. While part-time hourly wages can pay up to $15 an hour or more, New Hampshire remains the only New England state that’s still tied to the state’s $7.25 federal minimum wage. hour. These jobs lack retirement plans, sick leave and health care, all essential aspects of middle-class life.
Statewide, the cost of rent also increased while the vacancy rate fell to 0.3%. If renters can find an apartment, the median cost hovers around $1,500, or even more at a beach resort.
As million-dollar lakefront properties rise around the shores of Winnipesaukee, the people who help run the town — from business owners to state employees — can’t help but wondering if there is room for them too.
“I’m concerned about middle-class people and people who are native, who were born here,” said Cathie Keets, who has lived in Meredith since 1993. Despite three decades in town, the retired Treasury worker still doesn’t consider herself a local. “It looks like they’ve been ousted.”
The strain on the middle class has been a national pandemic story, with affordable housing crises hitting top seasonal resort towns like Sun Valley, Idaho and the Hamptons. It again took center stage when migrants were sent to Martha’s Vineyard, where affordability and limited housing were significant day-to-day challenges for residents the year before new visitors arrived.
But this story also takes place locally in New Hampshire. While celebrities like Mitt Romney, Jimmy Fallon, and Drew Barymore populate the shores of Lake Winnipesaukee in the summer, their prestigious residences overshadow the daily lives of lake residents year-round.
In Meredith, 13.1% of people still live below the poverty line, nearly double the state average.
Mary Moriarty sees the day-to-day juxtaposition as Superintendent of the Inter-Lakes School District. Many of his students come from Meredith families who hide in plain sight of the city’s affluent image.
“The reality is that we have needs in our schools that may not always be reflected in the ‘seasonal’,” she said.
The Inter-Lakes Cooperative is home to three towns in its school system – Meredith, Center Harbor and Sandwich. Meredith comprises the largest portion of the district, with 75% of students residing in the city, according to the district’s recent annual report.
Free and reduced meal numbers for Inter-Lakes prove Moriarty’s need in the community. In fall 2019, before the pandemic, 27% of students qualified.
That’s above the statewide number of 24% for students in grades 1 through 12.
“It is important to realize that there is food insecurity in our community. It’s definitely something that often needs more support for our families,” Moriarty said.
Enrollment in the district has also declined in recent years. As of fall 2022, 915 students are enrolled from kindergarten to high school. At the start of the school year in the fall of 2019, the number was 989. This translates to a reduction of 7% in three years.
Other communities have seen similar trends throughout the pandemic. But Moriarty points to a problem specific to Meredith as an explanation for the drop in enrollment: the cost of living in the community.
“It’s a beautiful area, and as it becomes more popular and more attractive, the cost of living is tough,” she said. “It can be difficult for young families to afford to buy a home and move here, which certainly has an impact on listings.”
As more and more students leave the school system, expenses continue to rise. In 2021, the cost per student was $26,840. That was well above the state average of $18,434, according to data from the New Hampshire Department of Education.
But a city with high property values also lends itself to a broader tax base. In Meredith, the per capita taxable property value was 253% of the state median, according to data from the New Hampshire Community Development Finance Authority.
In other words, properties in town generate more dollars for budgets, like the school district.
This means the school district has money to pay teachers. Electricity and heating bills for school buildings are covered. But with fewer students there is also less public funding for education – so these costs come at the expense of the local community.
One way to reduce the annual budget is to rely on natural attrition. As teachers retire, Moriarty must decide if their position needs a replacement. Smaller class sizes also allow classrooms to be consolidated, as was done with the high school social studies position.
Another way to cut costs is to creatively piece together your puzzle. When the demand for art lessons increased, she cut a post in the humanities to promote a part-time art teacher to a full-time position. To hire an occupational therapist, contract services have been reduced to allow room in the budget.
Moriarty is aware of the burden on residents.
“Every dollar of this budget is raised through local taxes. Balancing that so people can afford to pay their taxes, and that’s hard because enrollment is going down,” she said. “To maintain a strong lineup, when enrollment goes down, you lose the economy of scale.”
On average, the Granite State has the lowest poverty rate in the nation, but 1,000 people a month still depend on the Meredith Food Pantry for supplies and food.
The pantry collects boxes for eligible families year-round, with the number stable each month.
This need is a known fact in the school system, but something the city’s affluent summer image may obscure.
“When you look at seasonal second homes, you get the feeling there’s a lot of wealth, but that’s not necessarily reflected in every aspect. Families trying to earn a living all year round are a reality and there are certainly families who have more needs than you might think when driving into town on a sunny day.