Seacoast couple takes action on workforce housing

Tom Bobotas and Anne Holliday have long recognized the Seacoast is in dire need of affordable workforce housing. But instead of just talking about it, they have actually created 18 one- and two-bedroom apartments for people who work as teachers, hospital workers and waiters, among many others.

The married couple created their first affordable housing unit when they built a 1,200-square-foot apartment with one bedroom and a home office in September 2005. Two years later, they founded Teach a Man to Fish Inc., and purchased two buildings in Dover and South Berwick, Maine, for $950,000.

Holliday recalled how the death of Newington firefighter Chris DeWolf, who died in a car crash in January 2005 while en route to a fire in Newington, inspired the couple to start creating affordable workforce housing units. Holliday said DeWolf lived in Kittery, Maine, because he could not afford to live in the town where he worked.

Ten of the corporation’s 18 units are located in Dover at 11-13 Second St., which include a three-bedroom house located behind a large apartment house built in 1905. Seven other units are located in South Berwick, Maine.

The tenants pay rent based on their incomes and pay no more than 20 percent of their annual income, Bobotas said. They are offered two- or three-year leases that enable them to save money so they can be in a position to buy a home when their leases expire, Holliday said.

The couple provides tenants with opportunities to attend home-buying seminars, where they can learn how to improve their credit ratings and save money with tools such as Individual Development Accounts. With such an account, Holliday said, the federal government will match every dollar saved with a $3 contribution to help people save money for a down payment on a house or to start a small business.

The couple’s Web site,, borrows its central theme from a Chinese proverb: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

One of their tenants rents a two-bedroom unit in South Berwick and is listed as a Portsmouth Naval Shipyard engineer. The tenant rents the unit for $850 per month instead of $1,008 per month — 13 percent of the tenant’s monthly income.

Another tenant listed as a pizza shop owner rents a studio apartment at the couple’s Dover property for $550 per month instead of $684, which represents 13.75 percent of his monthly income.

“The tenants subsidize each other to allow the corporation to pay the two buildings’ mortgages, property taxes and other maintenance expenses,” Bobotas said.

“We also pay for the heat for all 18 units,” Holliday said. She added it will cost the couple $28,000 after she locked in a home heating oil contract for this winter.

Severe need

Holliday stressed that neither the corporation or any of their business partners make any money on these affordable housing units.

“We all just decided that somebody has to do it,” Holliday said.

The couple said the need for affordable workforce housing in the Seacoast region is very high, and the situation is only being exacerbated by the economy, gasoline and oil prices.

The Seacoast has one of the least affordable housing markets in the country and features median home prices of more than $250,000. Only half of the homes in the area are affordable, based on the region’s median household income of $73,000 for a family of four and $28,000 for a single mother.

“Over the coming winter months, it’s going to be frightening on the Seacoast,” Holliday said.

Bobotas said one of the reasons it has been so difficult for municipalities and social service agencies to create affordable workforce housing is that everyone always talks about constructing new buildings with 30 to 40 units. He said it is much easier to buy existing buildings in different cities and towns.

The couple also is reaching out to New Hampshire Gov. John Lynch and Maine Gov. John Baldacci to see if they will lend the affordable workforce housing effort any support. They also are challenging their associates, friends and colleagues to find buildings, in hopes that they will transform them into affordable workforce housing units as well. – ROBERT COOK/FOSTER’S DAILY DEMOCRAT