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Keene mayor: 760 new housing units needed in Cheshire County by 2024

Cheshire County must add 760 residential units over the next three years to keep pace with ongoing efforts to improve housing stability in New Hampshire, Keene’s mayor said this week.

Mayor George Hansel, a member of the state panel leading that push, told The Sentinel he hopes to encourage development by spreading awareness of housing issues and helping revise land-use rules that have blocked new growth.

But the 760-unit goal — the county’s share, based on population, of new units the N.H. Council on Housing Stability has said are needed by 2024 — will be difficult for Keene to reach on its own, he said. Instead, Hansel said Wednesday he wants to work with other area communities to expand the local housing stock.

“I think it would be a challenge for Keene to add that many housing units in that time period,” he said. “We’re going to certainly continue to do our part, but it’s going to take a regional effort.”

The housing stability council, established by Gov. Chris Sununu late last year, announced in June that it intends to spur the creation of at least 13,500 residential units statewide within three years.

As the Monadnock Region’s lone representative on that panel — which includes state and local officials, housing advocates and development experts — Hansel said he feels responsible for making sure this area contributes to its objective.

Housing issues — namely a concurrent drop in availability and affordability — have drawn attention in New Hampshire, and nationwide, during the COVID-19 pandemic. But Hansel, who previously served on Sununu’s Millennial Advisory Council, said that group identified the same problems several years ago, when a lack of vacant units was already keeping young people from moving to the state and thus hurting the economy.

“The younger side of the workforce has been struggling with housing for a long time,” he said. “It’s only now that I think people have gotten serious about it and recognized the crisis. It’s affecting everyone now.”

New Hampshire has a 0.9 percent rental vacancy rate, according to the independent state agency N.H. Housing — much lower than the 4-5 percent rate experts consider healthy. Meanwhile, the median monthly rent for a two-bedroom unit, including utilities, in the state has risen by more than $400 over the past decade, to $1,500.

In addition to keeping prices in check by building more units, Hansel, who was elected to a second two-year term as mayor earlier this month, said he’d like to help improve the quality of existing housing. Those efforts could tap into the city’s “21 in 21” program, which funds home improvements, and other state resources available for rehabilitation and weatherization work.

Local efforts to stimulate new housing should attract both affordable and market-rate development, Hansel also said.

A new draft blueprint for reaching the 760-unit goal, written by city staff and Keene’s public housing authority, proposes splitting them fairly evenly among so-called “affordable” and “workforce” housing — which cost up to $1,050 and $2,100 per month, respectively — as well as higher-priced “market-rate” units.

Hansel said that while private companies often prefer building market-rate housing for financial reasons, some area developments have effectively used public incentives meant to keep rents in check for people of low income. Those include Abenaki Springs, a 43-unit complex off Route 12 in Walpole, which he said could be a model for other affordable development in the region.

Hansel also touted plans for several large-scale housing projects in Swanzey, including a recent proposal for 208 new apartments on Old Homestead Highway (Route 32).

“That’ll be a big help,” he said. “I commend them for stepping up and … at least allowing for some of that new development because that’s really what’s needed in the community.”

But the Swanzey proposals — which also include two projects, totaling 160 units, from the same Walpole-based developer that built Abenaki Springs — have come under fire from residents, who say they would cause more traffic and sully the town’s rural feel.

Those arguments pose a serious threat to the prospects for much-needed housing, Hansel said. Residential developments “become infinitely more difficult when you have resistance,” such as NIMBYism — an acronym for “not in my backyard” that describes opposition to many housing proposals — he said.

Hansel said more education, largely on how multi-family housing can be integrated into small towns and who is eligible for subsidized rentals, can help allay those concerns.

“We’re not talking about totally changing the face of our community,” he said. “We’re talking about enhancing it and creating housing opportunity for everybody that wants to live here.”

In the coming years, Hansel said he intends to carry that message across Cheshire County and highlight examples of positive growth, meeting with local officials to also learn what they think is blocking new housing.

One area ripe for reform, he said, is municipal land-use policies that in many area towns cap the number of units allowed based on property size. Those density restrictions discourage meaningful growth, he said, because they force developers to go through an onerous process for special permitting.

Despite the challenges involved with adding more housing, Hansel urged area communities to at least consider adopting the efforts already underway in New Hampshire.

“This is the start of a conversation,” he said. “I hope that people recognize housing as a big issue and engage in the process of finding solutions here in the southwestern part of the state.”


Wapo
How the House spending bill would affect America

WASHINGTON — House Democrats on Friday morning passed a more than $2 trillion bill to overhaul the country’s health care, climate, education and tax laws, moving beyond months of disputes between liberals and moderates that have stalled President Joe Biden’s economic agenda.

The legislation builds off a framework that Biden unveiled to party lawmakers and includes new spending to enhance child care, provide free prekindergarten, combat climate change and advance a slew of tax benefits that chiefly aid low-income Americans.

But the bill omits many of Democrats’ top priorities, a reflection of the party’s difficult work to scale back a package once valued at $3.5 trillion. It now moves to the Senate, where it may face further cuts.

What follows is a guide to the legislation, one of the most significant overhauls of domestic policy in generations.

Health care

Senior Biden administration officials have characterized the plan’s health-care elements as the biggest expansion of affordable care in a decade, predicting the changes would extend coverage to 7 million people. Highlights include:

An extension, until 2025, of expanded premium subsidies for most Americans who purchase health plans through Affordable Care Act marketplaces, as begun in the spring through the American Rescue Plan law.

The ability, until 2025, for low-income people in a dozen states that have not expanded Medicaid to buy ACA health plans without paying a monthly premium.

An expansion of Medicare benefits for older Americans to include hearing benefits.

A new plan to try to lower prescription drug costs for millions of seniors on Medicare.

Education

Some of the most ambitious and expensive plans seek to ease the financial burdens facing millions of American families, particularly low-income parents with children.

Universal free prekindergarten for all 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds, which the White House has described as the largest expansion in such education programs since the creation of public high school roughly a century ago.

The prekindergarten effort is part of a broader $380 billion bucket of funds that also includes funding to help Americans pay for child care. The lowest-income families would get free child care, and families who earn up to $300,000 annually would see expenses capped at 7 percent of their income.

Climate

The Biden administration aims to secure $555 billion in spending to address climate change, an amount the White House says makes the bill the biggest clean-energy investment in the nation’s history.

The bulk of the clean-energy measures comes in the form of tax breaks for companies and consumers that install solar panels, improve the energy efficiency of buildings and purchase electric vehicles. The electric vehicle tax credit in particular could lower the cost of such a vehicle by $12,500 for a middle-class family, according to the administration.

There are additional financial incentives for making wind turbines and other clean-energy equipment domestically and in union-organized factories.

Taxes

The Biden administration says the plan is financed in full. But the reality is more complicated. An official analysis from the Congressional Budget Office finds it could add $367 billion to the deficit over the next decade; however, Democrats note that their official estimate does not include other revenue raisers that cover the entire tranche of spending.

Among the most critical revenue raisers:

A new 15 percent corporate minimum tax on large corporations, part of a broader effort on the part of the White House and Democrats to address the fact that some companies reduce their tax burdens to zero.

A new tax targeting companies that perform stock buybacks.

A new tax surcharge targeting the wealthiest Americans. The proposal would impose a new 5 percent rate on those with incomes above $10 million and an additional 3 percent surtax on incomes above $25 million.

A new effort to empower the Internal Revenue Service to pursue tax cheats, with a focus on Americans at higher incomes.

The House bill also includes the temporary repeal of the $10,000 cap on what state and local taxpayers can deduct off their federal taxes, a provision enacted by Republicans in their 2017 tax law.

Initially, the White House had hoped to raise even more money by ratcheting up rates on corporations and wealthy Americans, a move that would have unwound the tax cuts imposed under President Donald Trump in 2017.

Child tax credit

The bill seeks to build on a large expansion of the safety for families with children that was a landmark element of Biden’s stimulus that passed in March.

$200 billion will go toward expanding the child tax credit and the earned income tax credit, two major antipoverty initiatives, extending the provisions for one more year.

Under the American Rescue Plan, the child tax credit was expanded for the 2021 tax year to a total of $3,600 for children 5 and younger, and $3,000 for those ages 6 through 17. As the payments hit bank accounts in July, the benefit reached an estimated 60 million children in 39 million households across the country.

Infrastructure

The law seeks to add more money for infrastructure, even after Biden signed into law a sweeping bipartisan infrastructure bill earlier this month.

The infrastructure package launches a vast new effort to improve the nation’s transportation networks, water and power systems, and Internet connections. The new social and climate bill goes beyond that with spending on high-speed rail and public transit near affordable housing.

The bipartisan $1.2 trillion law has hundreds of billions of dollars in spending for roads and other major projects, including what the White House says is the largest investment in building and fixing bridges since construction of the interstate highway system in the 1950s.

Elder care

After the coronavirus pandemic emphasized the difficulties facing seniors as they age, the plan seeks to make a significant investment in helping aging Americans in the latter years of their lives, especially those who can’t care for themselves.

The legislation infuses roughly $150 billion to in-home and community-based services under Medicaid, which includes services such as assistance with eating and bathing, as well as physical therapy and nursing care.

The social spending bill would permanently increase by 6 percent the funding the federal government gives each state for in-home and community-based services, as long as the state creates a plan for strengthening and expanding services.

Housing

The legislation makes what is widely considered the largest infusion of federal funding for housing in modern history.

The legislation spends $170 billion on housing assistance for lower-income Americans.

Roughly $65 billion will go to rebuild and repair public housing. About $25 billion will go to federal housing vouchers to help low-income tenants afford rent, which could help reduce homelessness.

The housing trust fund program, aimed at expanding the stock of affordable housing for low-income families, will get an additional $15 billion.

Paid family leave

House Democrats passed the first national paid family and medical leave program as part of their $2 trillion package.

The bill puts aside about $200 billion to provide four weeks of paid family and medical leave starting in 2024.

The four weeks of leave would apply to full-time and part-time workers, with money paid out either through a new federal benefit or through existing state or employer-based plans.

Immigration

The reconciliation bill would create the largest mass-legalization program for undocumented immigrants in U.S. history, but it falls short of a path to U.S. citizenship.

Nearly 65 percent of the undocumented immigrants in the United States would be protected from deportation for up to a decade.

The largest affected groups are from Mexico, followed by Central America, but the group also includes people from Asia, Africa and all over the world.

Effects on the debt

An analysis by the Congressional Budget Office found that the bill would result in a net increase in the deficit totaling $367 billion over the next decade.

But the estimate did not include the full savings that could be achieved from some of the Democrats’ revenue-raising provisions, including a new plan to empower the Internal Revenue Service to recapture unpaid federal taxes. The White House has estimated that IRS enforcement alone could capture roughly $400 billion in additional revenue, while the CBO estimated a more modest $207 billion.


Local
COVID-19 spike in NH, Vermont has experts concerned about winter surge

While the rest of the country sees a slight dip in COVID-19 cases, the viral disease is running rampant in New Hampshire and Vermont, with both states seeing their highest case rates to date.

Why? The reasons vary, from the cold New England weather driving more indoor gatherings to the states’ stalled vaccination rates.

Regardless, health experts warn that if cases continue to rise, both states will head into yet another surge.

“That’s the worry. That’s what keeps a lot of us awake at night,” said Dr. Aalok Khole, an infectious disease physician at Cheshire Medical Center in Keene. “Last winter, we prepped for it, we continue prepping for it, but what’s different is we had way [stricter] mandates in place last time.”

In the week ending Thursday, the seven-day average of new COVID-19 cases in New Hampshire reached an all-time high of 880, according to data from the state’s health department. The second highest to date was back in December 2020, when New Hampshire was averaging 868 new cases per day.

In Vermont, the seven-day average for the week ending Thursday was 352 new cases, slightly down from its peak of 369 the week prior, according to data from the Vermont Department of Health. It’s next highest spike — aside from elevated numbers throughout the fall — was in April, with an average of 184 new cases per day.

Hospitalizations are also spiking, with 327 COVID-19 patients in New Hampshire hospitals and 62 in Vermont as of Wednesday and Thursday, respectively, according to data from each state’s health department.

On Friday, 340 COVID patients were in hospitals in the Granite State, according to the N.H. Hospital Association.

“The healthcare system is extremely strained treating both patients with COVID-19 and those without COVID-19 who may have delayed care or preventive screenings resulting in much more serious medical conditions,” association President Steve Ahnen said in a prepared statement. “Our hospitals are struggling to find intensive care beds and have been forced to look across state lines to transfer patients due to lack of bed capacity, while combatting the current workforce challenges that are only exacerbating the situation.”

New Hampshire hospitals had about 330 patients at the state’s peak last winter. Vermont’s also close to its highest number of hospitalizations, which it saw in February with 65 confirmed.

One of the biggest drivers of these high numbers is the weather, health experts said. The winter brings several holidays along with it, leading to more indoor gatherings and more traveling.

“Once you have ventilation affected, large gatherings — largely with unmasked individuals — it really promotes transmission, especially with delta,” Khole said. “It’s a recipe for disaster.”

Vaccination rates in both states have also largely flatlined since this summer.

As of Thursday, about 74 percent of Vermonters and 55 percent of Granite Staters were fully vaccinated.

Vermont Epidemiologist Patsy Kelso said she hopes 5- to 11-year-olds’ new eligibility for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine will help boost that rate and “that’s when we’ll see cases go down.”

But Khole said most of the patients with COVID that he’s seeing in Cheshire Medical’s ICU are unvaccinated, even though they are eligible for the shot.

“The age groups getting sick enough to be in the ICU and age groups passing away, that graph has shifted,” he said. “It’s no more the 75-plus and 80-plus, it’s more in the 40s, 50s and 60s. We’ve also had deaths of people in their 30s.”

Khole and Kelso stressed that the vaccine is the best way to prevent contracting and spreading the disease, and that the rise in cases does not mean the shots aren’t working.

Breakthrough cases can and do happen, but those who contract COVID-19 after vaccination are far less likely to develop severe complications from the disease or to die from it, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

And Vermont’s case rates among those who’ve received their booster shot — an additional dose given after the protection provided by the original shots begins to wane — have actually remained steady, according to Kelso.

“What we’ve seen in our Vermont data is the group that [has received a booster shot], the case rates are not increasing,” she said, “so we are trying to encourage Vermonters to get their vaccines and their boosters when it’s their time.”

Khole added that keeping safety protocols in place — such as donning a face mask, staying home when sick and practicing proper hand hygiene — is essential when case counts are this high, especially for those who aren’t vaccinated.

“The risk is really high of them contracting the virus and then getting sick from it ...,” he said. “That’s something we’ve been talking about right from the start. It’s a stark reality we need to understand.”


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