When businesses and communities lament the challenge of finding skilled workers in New Hampshire, often mentioned is the lack of affordable or so-called workforce housing.
Condominiums and single-family homes costing less than $300,000 are not in great supply these days, while the apartment vacancy rate for two-bedroom dwellings is now below 1 percent in most Granite State counties, says the N.H. Housing Finance Authority.
If you are young, just getting started on a career or beginning a family, finding home sweet home can be a souring experience.
A task force, assembled by Gov. Chris Sununu, has been working the past three months on potential solutions for this problem. The group, which includes Taylor Caswell, commissioner of business and economic affairs, Dean Christon, executive director and CEO of the N.H. Housing Finance Authority, and other state and community planners, released its recommendations last week. They are joined by state Reps. Joe Alexander, R-Goffstown, Willis Griffith, D-Manchester, Tom Loughman, D-Hampton, and Gates Lucas, R-Sunapee.
It’s a reasonably innovative and comprehensive plan, parts of which will require legislative action, components of which will need executive measures and pretty much everything will need implementation at the local level.
The recommendations break down into three areas, according to details released by Sununu:
Enhanced local control;
More predictability as it relates to local zoning and planning processes, fees and timetables;
Incentives for housing by broadening the scope of tax increment finance districts, or TIFs, and reductions in business profits taxes in certain circumstances.
The task force takes aim at state rules governing local planning and zoning laws by providing tools and training that would allow towns and cities to explore a variety of options to make workforce housing more available — compact downtown and village districts, cluster developments, mixed-use zoning and planned-unit developments, as examples.
Also emphasized is inclusionary zoning, a tool by which towns and cities can come up with incentives for the development of affordable housing. This translates into relaxed density requirements in exchange for developers building affordable homes.
Home developers might find these and other measures attractive if, as suggested by the task force, planning board site reviews can be capped at 65 days and zoning change requests can be decided within 90 days. These changes or clarifications can make housing development proposals more predictable in terms of permitting.
Court reviews of these decisions would be limited to 120 days, according to the recommendations, and if legal appeals of local board approvals are deemed frivolous, the developer or community facing the challenge may be able to recover attorney fees.
Also suggested is that those making up to 120 percent of the median income for a four-person household be eligible to buy workforce housing, instead of only up to 100 percent of that measure, which is the rule today.
And there are other incentives for developers of these less-costly homes, perhaps most significantly that TIF districts could be used for residential developments, which is not permitted now. Developers in TIF districts get help funding projects, but that money must eventually be repaid through revenues generated within the district.
Of course, these are the ideas of a task force and lack any teeth at this point, but Sununu, working with the bipartisan group of legislators, is promising two bills in the next session that would implement most of the plan. The first would be to streamline local procedures and make more predictable the planning and zoning processes for affordable housing developments. The second would make possible the financial and tax incentives for developers to build these homes.
These suggestions don’t answer all the challenges facing the would-be workforce homeowner, including the fact that in many areas of the state, no one is building homes at all, no matter the price. And it may be that in the end, it’s still more profitable for developers to build large homes with high price tags rather than clusters of properties selling for less than $300,000.
It also remains to be seen whether the advantage of spurring more residential development of lower-priced homes is worth the limitations the moves would put on local planning and zoning officials to adequately review such proposals — especially large-scale plans.
Still, the collection of ideas proposed by Sununu’s group offers an interesting approach to solving a problem that if not addressed will plague the state’s business competitiveness for years to come.