A drive around Meredith shows the two sides of New Hampshire.
Lakeside homes offer an idyllic seasonal destination for a summer vacation. Along the Wagon Wheel Trail, a short dirt road on Meredith Bay in Lake Winnipesaukee, sits the city’s most expensive apartment building amid a row of million-dollar homes.
The owners of the 11,000-square-foot log home, which sits on seven acres behind tall black iron gates, are from Stamford, Connecticut. They paid $7.8 million for the home in 2009. More than a decade later, the price has doubled, and the city appraised the property at $14.5 million.
Some neighbors live there year-round, but Memorial Day license plates come from Massachusetts, Connecticut. California and Florida populate driveways and buzz along city streets.
From the White Mountains to the Lakes Region to the seashores, New Hampshire is known as a great place to raise a family, start a career and enjoy a natural playground. These are all things that heads of state brag about, but they gloss over the daily reality for many residents living below the poverty line. Meredith is no exception.
Meredith’s identity, like much of New Hampshire, is revealed by the wealth of some of its residents and also by the poverty of others.
Further down town, just past the high school, the prefabs on True Road showcase the other half of Meredith. Scattered across the shamrock-shaped neighborhood, the homes at Interlakes Mobile Home Park range in value from $30,000 to $50,000 — some of the lowest in the city.
In the summer months, the city’s population swells from 6,000 to as many as 20,000 inhabitants. With more residents, there is a greater need for employees to restock grocery shelves, drive through windows, and work in city services.
But New Hampshire can be a difficult place to make a living, especially in a seasonal city. While part-time hourly wages can pay as much as $15 an hour or more, New Hampshire remains the only New England state still bound by the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. These jobs lack retirement plans, sick leave and health care, all important aspects of middle-class life.
Rental costs have also risen nationwide, while the vacancy rate has fallen to 0.3 percent. If renters can find an apartment, the average cost is around $1,500, or even more in a resort town.
As million-dollar lakeside real estate is built on the shores of Winnipesaukee, the people who help run the city — from business owners to state employees — wonder if there’s room for them too.
“I worry about the middle class and the local people who were born here,” says Cathie Keets, who has lived in Meredith since 1993. Despite living in the city for three decades, the retired state finance clerk still doesn’t consider herself a local. “It seems like they’re being squeezed out.”
The squeeze on the middle class has been a nationwide pandemic storyline, with the affordable housing crisis hitting high-profile seasonal resort towns like Sun Valley, Idaho and the Hamptons. It came back into focus when migrants were sent to Martha’s Vineyard, where affordability and limited housing presented year-round residents with major daily challenges before new visitors arrived.
But this story also plays out locally in New Hampshire. While celebrities like Mitt Romney, Jimmy Fallon and Drew Barymore crowd the shores of Lake Winnipesaukee in the summer, their high-profile residences overshadow the daily lives of the lake’s year-round residents.
In Meredith, 13.1% of people still live below the poverty line, almost double the national average.
Mary Moriarty sees the juxtaposition daily as Superintendent of the Inter-Lakes School District. Many of her students come from Meredith families who hide from the city’s affluent image.
“The reality is that we have needs in our schools that ‘seasonal’ may not always reflect,” she said.
The Inter-Lakes Cooperative has three cities in its school system – Meredith, Center Harbor and Sandwich. Meredith makes up most of the district, with 75 percent of the students residing in the city, according to the district’s most recent annual report.
Inter-Lakes free and discounted lunch numbers demonstrate Moriarty’s need in the community. For fall 2019, before the pandemic, 27 percent of students qualified.
This is above the statewide figure of 24 percent for students in grades 1 through 12.
“It is important to recognize that there is food insecurity in our community. That’s certainly something that often requires more support for our families,” Moriarty said.
County enrollments have also declined in recent years. In autumn 2022, 915 students are enrolled in kindergarten through high school. At the beginning of the school year in autumn 2019, there were still 989. This corresponds to a decrease of 7 percent in three years.
Other communities have observed similar trends during the pandemic. But Moriarty points to a problem specific to Meredith as one explanation for lower enrollment: the cost of living in the community.
“This is a beautiful area and as it becomes more popular and attractive, the cost of living is a challenge,” she said. “For young families, it can be difficult to afford to buy a home and settle here, and that certainly has an impact on enrollment.”
As more students leave the school system, spending continues 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 larger tax base. In Meredith, the taxable real estate value per capita was 253 percent of the state median, according to data from the New Hampshire Community Development Finance Authority.
In other words, real estate in the city generates more dollars for budgets, like the school district.
That means the school district has money to pay the teachers. Electricity and heating costs for school buildings are covered. But with fewer students, there is less government funding for education, so these costs are borne by the local community.
One way to cut the annual budget is to rely on natural fluctuation. With teachers retiring, Moriarty must decide if her position needs to be replaced. Smaller class sizes also allow for the opportunity to consolidate classrooms, as has happened with the humanities position in high school.
Another way to cut costs is to get creative with your jigsaw puzzle. As demand for art classes increased, she dropped a liberal arts position to promote a part-time art teacher to a full-time position. To hire an occupational therapist, contracted benefits were reduced to give some budget wiggle room.
Moriarty is aware of the strain on local residents.
“Every dollar of this budget is funded by local taxpayers. Balancing that so people can afford to pay their taxes and it’s difficult as enrollment is declining,” she said. “To maintain a strong program, as enrollments drop, the economies of scale are lost.”
On average, the Granite State has the lowest poverty rate in the country, but still 1,000 people a month rely on the Meredith Food Pantry for supplies and groceries.
The pantry assembles boxes for eligible families throughout the year, with their numbers remaining constant each month.
This need is well known in the school system, but something that can tarnish the city’s affluent summertime image.
“When you look at seasonal second homes, you get the sense that there is a lot of prosperity, but it’s not necessarily reflected in all aspects. Families trying to make a living all year round are a reality, and there are certainly families who have greater needs than one might imagine driving into town on a sunny day.”