Opinion: HB 1281 is housing advocacy gone awry
|Published: 02-11-2024 7:00 AM
Todd Selig is the long-time Town Manager in Durham.
Durham has significant concerns with HB 1281, a proposal that would prohibit the adoption or enforcement of any code, ordinance, by-law, or regulation related to the occupancy of residential rental property that restricts the number of occupants to less than two occupants per bedroom based upon the existence of unrelated or non-familiar relationships between the occupants of such rental property.
If enacted, this proposal would strike down duly adopted local ordinances related to the occupancy of rental property across New Hampshire, such as Durham’s “no more than three-unrelated” zoning provision dating to 1986.
Durham is host to UNH’s flagship campus, and therefore, has a significant presence of college students who impact the socio-economic characteristics of our town of 15,410 residents. In comparison, UNH had enrollment of 13,712 students at the Durham campus in the fall of 2021.
Managing student housing is an overarching issue here. The use is akin to holding a tiger by the tail; it provides many benefits but can, if not managed carefully, cause extraordinary problems. The Town approaches the issue in good faith and with much analysis and input from UNH, local boards and committees, residents, and landlords. HB 1281 would severely undermine that process.
The construction of approximately 2,400 new privately-owned, off-campus apartments in Durham since 2011 has created opportunities for in-commuting students to move into local student housing from surrounding communities in Strafford and Rockingham Counties, freeing up regional apartments for traditional workforce housing.
What’s different about Durham’s rental housing market, which is true of most college towns, is local rents are derived on a per-bed basis. In other words, landlords rent their apartments based on the number of beds and not by the unit size or number of bedrooms. That means a conventional two-bedroom apartment, which might rent to two people for $2,000/month in another town, could be rented to four college students at a rate of $1,000 per bed or $4,000 per month. This market factor creates an incentive for landlords and property owners to rent to students rather than conventional renters because their gross monthly rent can be twice as high, driving up rents to the point that most conventional renters cannot compete financially against student renters.
Host communities like Durham, Keene, Plymouth, Hanover, Manchester, and New London are in the best position to manage student housing. Similarly, communities like Nashua, Rochester, Concord, Conway, Laconia, or Lee that host manufacturing, warehouses, malls, gaming, ski resorts, lakeside amenities, farms and forests, or that are working to adapt to and accommodate influxes of immigrant or homeless populations, are in the best position to manage their unique circumstances. Unlike workforce housing where there is a recognized state-wide deficiency, student housing does not need an assist.
While most people view college students as having less income or a lower ability to pay, many have their rent paid by their parents or through student loans. This means they have a much greater ability to pay rent than other people in the rental market. Over time, lower rental rates increase to reflect market competition and inflationary influences. This works against workforce housing in Durham and in other nearby communities impacted by college student rental pressures.
Over time, behavioral problems develop and the quality of the physical structures utilized for student housing deteriorates if not actively managed by the commercial operators. Non-student neighbors in the vicinity demand action from the municipality and/or tire and ultimately choose to sell their family homes in frustration, which then are sold to landlords who rent to more students due to the economics outlined, further exacerbating the situation. The cost of additional local police and code/fire enforcement personnel to manage the impact increases local budgets and drives up local tax rates.
Durham’s “no more than three-unrelated” zoning provision is an important component of local efforts to preserve traditional neighborhoods close to campus. It is constitutional, consistent with the Federal Fair Housing Act, and keeps off-campus non-family housing density manageable.
The lack of sufficient workforce housing in New Hampshire has slowly developed over many years impacted in large part by market forces. Rapid, one-size-fits-all legislative mandates such as HB 1281 that ignore the uniqueness of individual communities and strike down important local zoning provisions in favor of a handful of aggrieved landlords is not the answer. The reality is that local citizens and decision-makers know their community best, which is the nexus behind the long-celebrated New Hampshire tradition of local control.