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Sununu, Feltes have tried to ease the state’s affordable housing crunch

Monitor staff
Published: 10/26/2020 4:18:11 PM

It’s a problem that has slowly consumed the state’s economy, and the coronavirus has only exacerbated it: New Hampshire does not have enough affordable housing.

Vacancy rates for rentals hover at around 1% for most of the state – much lower than national averages of 5%. The costs for buying a home in the Granite State have jumped up considerably in the past year. And the number of houses for sale below $300,000 have decreased by 58% from 2015 to 2020, according to the New Hampshire Housing Finance Authority.

Both candidates for New Hampshire governor, incumbent Gov. Chris Sununu, a Republican, and state Sen. Dan Feltes, a Democrat, have stressed the importance of expanding affordable housing in the state in recent debate appearances.

But the two differ in how they would implement that change. Sununu has favored tax incentives to bring developers on board with diversifying housing stock and bring down rents and sales prices. Feltes has called for broad investment from both federal and state sources.

Here’s a look at the two candidates’ records.

Dan Feltes

Midway through October, Dan Feltes released a housing plan that included action items for investing in affordable housing. Much of that plan relies upon New Hamsphire’s share of federal stimulus and COVID-19 aid money.

For instance, Feltes has called for using $40 million of the state’s CARES Act money toward “a real Housing Recovery Fund.” That’s a reference to a $35 million program created by Gov. Chris Sununu to help tenants and homeowners, which Feltes has criticized as being too slow and burdened by too many bureaucratic hoops.

He has advocated using $10 million in federal money to beef up the state’s affordable and workforce housing plan, and to maintain a $10 million-a-year allocation into that fund in future years, even after the pandemic.

The senator says he would use the New Hampshire Housing Finance Authority to create 250 new state Section 8 housing vouchers for homelessness and add an additional 100 vouchers for veterans.

He has called for providing a business profits tax reduction to encourage landlords to accept Section 8 housing recipients.

Feltes also says he would push for a “comprehensive state homelessness plan” as governor. Among the items within it: partnering with New Hampshire’s hotel industry and short rentals like Airbnbs to provide hotel rooms for those who are homeless and have COVID-19.

That approach would require leasing agreements with hotels, subsidized by the state with $1 million in federal recovery funds, Feltes says.

Meanwhile, Feltes helped advocate for legislation in 2020 relating to rental evictions.

HB 1247 was a package of legislation sent to Sununu by Democrats in the House and Senate as part of an expedited bill process during the coronavirus.

The bill would have created a “duty of good faith and fair dealing” for mortgage lenders in New Hampshire. Such a statutory duty would in theory bolster the rights in court of the person taking out the loan.

And it would have prevented any landlord in the state from filing a “possessory action” during the state of emergency declared by the governor because of the coronavirus – essentially putting in law a moratorium on evictions for nonpayment of rents.

Sununu vetoed the bill, calling a ban on landlord evictions for rent nonpayment “a recipe for them removing those rental units from the market.”

Chris Sununu

Sununu has made his own push to increase affordable housing in recent years.

In October 2019, he endorsed a bill that was meant to bring incentives for towns and municipalities to increase affordable housing. Introduced with bipartisan support, House Bill 1632 was meant to move the ball forward by using tax incentives.

The bill sought to encourage businesses to invest in qualifying housing developments with a new business profits tax deduction. It set up a temporary reduction in the real estate transfer tax for anyone buying a house for the first time. First-time buyers would pay about a third less in taxes than others.

It gave new options to cities and towns to expand affordable housing, including by allowing the town to designate land for public use to build affordable housing stock.

HB 1632 was the product of a set of recommendations from a housing task force brought together by the governor in 2019.

The bill was scrapped this summer after Republicans in the House voted against extending the legislative deadlines for a slate of bills on account of COVID-19, killing it instantly. Senate Democrats declined to resuscitate it in their packages of bills passed over the summer.

As governor during the COVID-19 crisis, Sununu had the unique authority to dole out $1.25 billion in federal aid delivered to the state in March. Part of the money has gone toward housing affordability.

The governor set aside $35 million in aid money to help homeowners and tenants – $20 million to be disbursed immediately and $15 million as a reserve fund after the first fund expired. With fears of an eviction wave brought on by the expiration of the $600-a-week federal unemployment assistance, housing experts and state officials were expecting the money to go quickly.

The program was initially slow to disburse some of its funds after a lack of applications from tenants and homeowners. Since then, more money has gone out.

At the beginning of the pandemic, Sununu also imposed a moratorium on evictions for nonpayment of rent in New Hampshire. He signed an additional executive order to put a stop on utilities shutting users out.

Those two executive orders expired July 1. Sununu declined to extend them, arguing that doing so would hurt landlords financially, which he said could affect the rest of the housing market.

He also vetoed the bill from Democrats that would have put the eviction moratorium into law, rather than through an executive order.

Instead, the governor established his housing assistance program, telling reporters that it would provide an off-ramp for those who may have fallen behind on rent during the shutdown and no longer have an eviction moratorium to protect them.

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at 369-3307, edewitt@cmonitor.com, or on Twitter at @edewittNH.)

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