PETERBOROUGH — With New Hampshire having among the fastest growing older populations in the union, U.S. Rep. Ann M. Kuster told local Realtors and business leaders Thursday that the stakes are too high for the status quo to continue.
The main issues Kuster, D-N.H., cited as impediments to young professionals and families staying in or moving to New Hampshire are high student loan debt, and a lack of broadband Internet access and affordable housing.
And the congresswoman said that millennials do not have the same interest as baby boomers and some Gen Xers in owning large homes on sprawling properties, and prefer instead to live within walking distance of a downtown with diverse amenities.
With Realtors comprising the majority of the crowd at Thursday’s roundtable discussion at SoClean Inc. in Peterborough — hosted by the Contoocook Valley Board of Realtors — much of the conversation centered around challenges they’ve encountered in the Monadnock Region and southern New Hampshire in restrictive zoning and a limited housing supply that sometimes leaves them with more demand than they can handle.
The problem, panelists agreed, is that many older Granite Staters are perfectly happy with the way things are.
Peter Francese, a demographic trends analyst from Exeter who is working on a documentary about New Hampshire’s aging population, spoke about a hostility he said exists among older property taxpayers toward young adults moving into town. That feeling, he said, is misplaced.
“The idea that suddenly you put a few more kids in the schools, and that’s going to jack up your property taxes is absolute, utter nonsense,” Francese said. “But it is so firmly entrenched in the minds of townspeople in New Hampshire that I have yet to dislodge it. It is a very difficult thing when somebody firmly believes that every kid they see walking down the street is $15,000 on their property taxes.”
Much of education is a fixed cost — particularly in the overhead and upkeep of school grounds — Francese said, but because so many primary schools in New Hampshire are sparsely populated, the cost per student can raise alarm bells around town meeting season. The real problem, Francese said, is that the state overburdens property taxpayers by not allocating more funds toward education, and not enough children live in the Granite State to sustain schools in many towns.
That dynamic, Kuster said, could lead to cataclysmic consequences.
Kuster described a “vicious cycle” where the population of children and young professionals in local business dwindles, and schools become worse. That makes towns less attractive to prospective homebuyers because of the poor quality of schools, which struggle to justify overhead costs for so few students.
Solutions are available at the federal, state and local levels, Kuster and Francese agreed.
The federal government fulfilling its promise of funding 70 percent of special education — stemming from the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975 — and extending broadband access would be a strong start, Kuster said.
The Legislature and the governor finding revenue for more robust education spending would be another, Francese said.
And at the local level, zoning practices need to be overhauled to make room for more affordable housing and rental units, said Dan O’Halloran, president of the Concord-based N.H. Association of Realtors.
Age-restricted zoning through means such as prohibiting multi-family units from certain neighborhoods has become such a problem that O’Halloran told the audience that the state Realtors association has deployed an algorithm to scrape through municipal meeting minutes to identify zoning initiatives preventing young people from moving to towns.
But the rest of the room didn’t need an algorithm to identify broader demographic problems facing them in day-to-day business.
Katrina Kramer, senior director of human resources at SoClean — which makes CPAP cleaning units — said that a lack of rental opportunities and affordable housing around Peterborough has led to some employees commuting from Manchester because they can’t find an apartment.
Meanwhile, Mason Parker, founder and owner of Parker and Sons Coffee Roasting in Peterborough, said he has a difficult time recruiting and retaining young employees amid the low unemployment rate.
“Nobody really seems to be staying (in the region), and those that do, anyone in my industry is trying to fight for them,” Parker said. “You know, they ask me what are the qualifications — you have reliable transportation and you show up on time; I mean, that’s it. I’ll train you to do anything else.”
Despite the rather robust discussion about how the state and federal governments can help towns attract young workers, Francese said that when push comes to shove, local communities should not count on help coming from anywhere outside their borders.
“It’s up to you,” he said. “The state is not going to do anything. It is up to you to allow for affordable housing.”