Growth is complicated. Sure, some localities have it easy, offering great weather, beautiful vistas or other natural amenities. Sometimes, a large-enough company may drop anchor, and its plentiful good-paying jobs will help drive local growth.
Suppose, however, your community doesn’t have these advantages. It’s a nice, even special, place, but not everyone’s cup of tea. Its taxes are high because there’s not enough industrial/commercial activity to offset the cost of schools and other services. Companies interested in building locally say they like the area, but there aren’t enough qualified workers. Workers say they like the area, but they can’t find housing that’s affordable. And housing developers need a guaranteed return to build that housing, which means it’s not going to be all that affordable for much of that would-be workforce.
A vicious cycle? Sure, but it’s a common one, too. Welcome to the Monadnock Region, where rents outpace wages and companies too often can’t grow because the workers they need can’t afford to live here. At least, that’s the situation for many. And despite a rise in residential construction in recent years, the area remains at a deficit of housing units.
There are efforts to address the issue. One is through the state Council on Housing Stability, which Gov. Chris Sununu appointed. That panel has called for the creation of at least 13,500 new residential units in the state within three years.
Among its members is Keene Mayor George Hansel, who recently said Cheshire County must add 760 residential units over the next three years to uphold its part of that goal. He realistically noted it’s unlikely Keene alone can produce that much development and said he’ll be looking to other towns as well.
If you build a new home, it’s likely you plan to live in it. Multifamily housing — apartments and condominiums — are commercial projects, undertaken to generate a profit. Thus, while there have been a few residential projects in the city in recent years — the Colony Mill renovation, the two college apartment complexes bracketing Ralston Street, Washington Park behind the former middle school — they have not really addressed the need for affordable units.
A big obstacle is the amount of non-commercial land in the Elm City. Much of the developable acreage in Keene is owned by nonprofits, held in conservation or publicly owned (think Keene State College). So Hansel is smart to look outside the city limits.
Swanzey has been a hotspot for housing development of late. At least four major apartment projects have been announced in the past two years there: a 76-unit complex on Route 32, an 84-unit complex on Route 10, an 80-unit apartment building off Route 12 and, most recently, a 208-unit project also slated for Route 32, at Safford Drive.
All have been met by opposition, largely based on the idea that Swanzey is a rural community and doesn’t need the traffic, large buildings and/or the effect of more children on the schools. Still, two have been approved, while one was denied and is now in court on appeal.
In every case, it’s been noted there’s a need for more housing in the area — especially affordable apartments. Yet the concerns remain when the project is close by. “Not in my backyard” is the term, and while understandable, it’s probably stopped more development than wetlands, Native American burial grounds and the Endangered Species Act combined. Ironically, many of those who argue the loudest against new development came to the region themselves from afar, settling into homes in subdivisions they might now oppose.
No one wants more traffic, more people, more large apartment buildings in their neighborhood. But they want the taxes, the workers and the customers those projects generate.
For Swanzey, those four projects, along with a planned 20-home housing subdivision off Route 12, could provide 468 of those needed 760 units. But it shouldn’t be on that town alone to bear the brunt of the effort, either.
That’s why the project Hansel’s group is pushing is needed. He pointed to a draft blueprint for reaching the 760-unit goal, written by city staff and Keene’s public housing authority, that 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. That would allow developers to make a profit while also creating more housing at all economic levels.
Growth is never painless, but if well planned, eventually it’s necessary.