Community supports residents of local motel

by Daniel Preysman | 11/6/03 6:00am

As White River Junction's Maple Leaf Motel closes its aging doors today, the Upper Valley breathes a sigh of relief.

Just over a month ago, the low-slung brick motel that crouches just next to Route 5 sparked a flurry of news reports after landlord Dana Whitney sent an eviction notice to the 17 families who had made permanent homes out of the motel. Unable to keep up with costs of maintenance, Whitney was forced to shut down the motel.. He gave all the tenants 30 days notice.

Now, thanks to more than $14,000 in donations and an outpouring of community and non-profit support, virtually every tenant of the Maple Leaf Motel has found a place to live. One man who did not want to seek housing is planning to live out of his car, and one family is still looking for a place to live, said Tom Ketteridge, executive director of the Upper Valley Haven, a non-profit group that channeled private donations to help pay for the families' new houses and apartments.

The Maple Leaf Motel, which consists of a one-story brick building with a low, sloping roof, is clearly in need of repairs. The screen doors have holes in them and the walls of the rooms seem to sag inwards. Outside of the motel, a rusted metal bookcase lies on its side, and Halloween decorations dangle on one of the doors.

"People live in motels lots of places, and it's no good," said Jan Tarjan, associate dean of the Tucker Foundation. The new homes that the tenants have found are definitely a step up from the Maple Leaf Motel, housing advocates say.

When staff members at the Tucker Foundation heard about the crisis, they immediately called LISTEN Community Services -- a non-profit organization in the Upper Valley that provides housing assistance to local residents -- asking if there was any way that they could help, Tarjan said. The Tucker Foundation offered to send in students to help the families fill out housing forms and to counsel them on how to conduct a housing search.

However, by the time that the Tucker Foundation had gotten involved, the process to help the families was already underway -- at a breakneck pace. Ketteridge said that he's still reeling from the speed with which the families were placed in their new homes.

Ketteridge attributes the remarkable effort to all the press attention that the Maple Leaf Motel had generated. "I think it's great they're paying a lot of attention to it because it sheds light on housing problems in the Upper Valley," Ketteridge said.

The intensity of media coverage has left some community members disgruntled, however.

On a recent soggy afternoon, a man wearing a blue jacket, probably in his fifties, walked under the canopy of the Maple Leaf Motel, making sure that the tenants had cleaned out their rooms when they left. "Everybody I've talked to says we're sick of reading about this story," said the man, who explained that he was hired to clean the hotel out before its official closing but refused to give his name.

As he stepped out of one of the rooms, the man turned briefly to gripe about the media coverage. "They've turned it into a sick contest," he said.

Hunter Rieseberg, Hartford's town manager, said that he personally felt that local news outlets had been biased in their coverage. "It feels like people have blamed the town of Hartford," said Rieseberg, who accused local news outlets of focusing on the unfortunate plight of the tenants instead of describing the incredible support that the tenants had received.

Housing advocates and non-profit workers have been more forgiving, but they do worry that the attention sparked by this case will distract from the broader needs of the community.

"Just because those individuals are being highlighted because it affected so many people at one time doesn't mean that this isn't happening elsewhere in the Upper Valley," said Merilyn Bourne, executive director of LISTEN Community Services.

Bourne said she hopes that all the hubbub stirred up by the Maple Leaf Motel will make people more concerned about the local housing shortage, instead of making them believe that this is an isolated case.

"What they need to do is broker this into increased awareness in the Upper Valley," Tarjan said, referring to the need for the non-profit community to capitalize on recent media interest.

A report last year by the Upper Valley Lake Sunapee Regional Planning Commission found that housing demand in the Upper Valley had outstripped supply by almost 3000 homes in the last decade.

If current trends continue, the community will have to produce 9000 more housing units in the next decade just to keep up with demand. This number is more than twice the amount of units produced between 1990 and 2000. Some advocates have even suggested that the land where the Maple Leaf Motel currently sits could be used to build affordable housing units.