The domino effects of the acute shortage of affordable housing in New Hampshire seem widely understood. With demand outstripping supply, rents are spiraling upward. This puts added financial pressure on workers and their families, driving some toward homelessness. It also makes it a challenge to attract and retain workers to the state, particularly younger ones and those with families, which threatens economic vitality. And the ripples extend to create added demand for services and assistance from local governments and social services.
The no-brainer solution for the lack of affordable housing is, of course, to build more affordable housing. That was recently reaffirmed by the N.H. Council on Housing Stability when it called for 13,500 new housing units to be built in the state by 2024. The council was created last November by Gov. Chris Sununu at the urging of the state’s 13 mayors — including Keene’s George Hansel, now a council member — who implored the state to take a more comprehensive role in addressing housing insecurity and homelessness.
Achieving the council’s target would be a significant, though incomplete, accomplishment, as the state Housing Finance Authority estimated in 2020 that 20,000 new units are needed to bring the extremely low vacancy rate — below 2 percent statewide last year, and near zero in some communities — back into a more healthy balance. But getting to the council’s three-year target would go far to alleviate the severe underproduction of housing in recent years that has led to the current shortage.
Setting the goal is one thing, but achieving it in New Hampshire’s patchwork, decentralized structure presents a formidable challenge. Among the obstacles to housing creation have been zoning and other regulatory barriers thrown up at the community level, which have significantly deterred private developers. Removing those barriers are among the council’s stated objectives in recommending specific steps to be taken in the upcoming year and over the next three years.
Implementing those steps on a statewide basis won’t be easy. Gov. Sununu, who endorsed the council’s plan in an accompanying letter, has championed legislation in recent sessions that would add uniformity to and streamline the local approval process. The most recent version, House Bill 586, would adopt what would seem the classic New Hampshire approach of eliminating bureaucratic obstacles and enabling communities to offer tax and other incentives to entice developers.
While the proposal attracted Democratic support, it nevertheless foundered in this year’s legislative session because of opposition from some in Sununu’s Republican Party, principally for reasons that seem mostly parochial and NIMBY-ish. According to Rep. Charles Melvin, a Republican from Newton, it falls to the cities to address the housing shortage; he also derided the potential residents of new affordable housing that might be federally subsidized — “you’re not bringing the best of the best into the community,” he told N.H. Bulletin. That narrow-minded approach would argue for loading all the responsibility on larger municipalities, even though they provide surrounding towns much of their economic well-being and social services.
Not directly addressed in the council’s plan is the ever-present elephant in the New Hampshire room — its upside-down reliance on local property taxes for school funding and other services. Among oft-cited objections to housing development, which Melvin also expressed, is that housing units would bring more families, which would drive up the local school taxes beyond any increase in the tax base that might result from a new development. In the face of such unenlightened opposition, further consideration of HB 586 was deferred into the next legislative session.
The council’s plan and the proposals in HB 586 are sensible approaches to tackling a dire need in a conventional New Hampshire manner. Overcoming resistance in individual communities to sharing responsibility for a regional and statewide solution is critical, however. Further, the paralyzing specter that adding housing units will have on an individual community’s property taxes must be addressed, whether by spreading the burden more equitably across the state or, as the council’s report calls for, providing “financial support for local communities that make regulatory changes that promote affordable housing development.”
That will take considerable political will, particularly from Gov. Sununu in bringing his party’s legislators on board.