Enhanced guidelines with new and existing programs address current housing crisis

By MICHAELA TOWFIGHI 

Monitor staff

Published: 07-16-2023 1:00 PM

This year, new reports pinned a daunting number on the scope of New Hampshire’s housing crisis: 23,000 units needed today, to meet the current demand. And it only grows – 60,000 units by 2030, up to 90,000 by 2040. 

These large-scale numbers quantify how many units are needed to meet the demands of today’s housing market. But the current crisis –  low vacancy rates, skyrocketing prices, increased demand on services provided for people experiencing homelessness – is a multifaceted, complex beast. 

So when New Hampshire's 424 elected officials convened in the State House in January, Elissa Margolin, the director of Housing Action NH, which focuses on housing policy and advocacy, saw a newfound focus on housing. 

“We saw an unprecedented number of different ideas and approaches on how to address the housing crisis,’ she said. 

With a budget year where Governor Chris Sununu signed a $15 billion spending package for the next two years, a historic amount of funding was allocated to housing and homelessness services, said Margolin. 

The $50 million dedicated to housing will continue to maintain programs like the Affordable Housing Fund – a tool used since the 1980s that provides low-interest grants and loans for developers to build income-restricted units –  and the governor’s InvestNH program, which was created using pandemic relief aid to boost affordable housing production in the state. 

With InvestNH, the biennial budget made a slight adjustment to the program’s guidelines. For developers receiving grants to build housing, 20 percent of a building must be designated as affordable and remain income-restricted for 10 years. Previously, the requirement was a 5-year affordability period.  

Budget funding also established the new Housing Champions grant program. With $5 million set aside for this initiative, municipalities now have access to technical assistance when it comes to infrastructure planning to support more housing production.

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If a municipality establishes a commitment to policies that promote affordable housing development, they’ll be designated as a “housing champion." In the long run, this town or city will now have access to grants to continue to improve their housing resources.  

This can mean help with administrative tasks like updating a master plan, or funding for infrastructure improvements, like water and sewer. 

The program, which was also outlined in Senate Bill 145 this year, is one of many ways lawmakers are starting to think about housing issues in their own town or city, said Margolin. 

“Municipalities can really help keep young people there, and provide the housing options that they want for their community, in their own backyards,” she said. 

While housing advocates celebrated what lawmakers did pass in the budget, other significant achievements came from refuting policy that would have restricted tenants' rights. 

Currently, when a landlord and tenant sign a lease agreement, the landlord can terminate the contract when it expires (typically a year or month to month) if rent is overdue, for renovations, if the tenant is a threat or disturbance or if the landlord has family members who would like to move in. 

House Bill 177, sponsored by former chief justice Bob Lynn, who is now a Windham Republican, sought to add a clause to leases that would allow the landlord to terminate the contract upon completion without reasoning. 

The bill originally passed the House, but was later killed in the Senate.

Its defeat came on the heels of increased education about what the impacts would be for tenants if they were displaced, and the challenges to find new housing in the current, tight landscape. Often, these conversations were led in the State House by New Hampshire Legal Assistance, who represents clients facing evictions, said Margolin. 

“If that had changed I think you would have seen a lot more displacement and that would have been a really bad thing for New Hampshire,” she said. “So that was a win.”

Next year, the Special Committee on Housing, one of two introduced this year alongside childcare to focus on specific issues impacting the state, will begin to introduce policy proposals. 

And well ahead of the second-half of lawmakers’ two-year terms, Housing Action NH has submitted a preliminary list of policy proposals for the committee to consider. 

These policies include incentives to make development easier for potential contractors – like enabling pre-permitting and streamlining inspections; focus on housing density by altering accessory dwelling units, parking and multi-family housing laws; and zoning regulations to allow for housing in commercial zones or infill development. 

Margolin also expects to continue a conversation with lawmakers, landlords, tenants and developers around the current laws in place – like the 30-days notice given to tenants to vacate a unit, and the ability to reject rental applications based on the use of a housing voucher. 

Ultimately, conversations next year will inherently revolve around production, as the state looks to continue to build as many units to meet the current 23,000 unit demand, and how the lack of units impacts the wide variety of homeowners and renters in New Hampshire. 

“For some people, young professionals aren't able to buy their first affordable home. For others, it's just not getting an affordable apartment near their job, where they want to live. And, for others, it's pretty desperate. It's like not having a roof over your head at all," she said. “The pain is represented in different ways.” 

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