Granite Geek: Chemistry class explains why the housing crisis got bad so fast

By DAVID BROOKS

Monitor staff

Published: 09-05-2023 4:52 PM

The weird thing about New Hampshire’s housing crisis from my point of view is that it seems to have erupted out of nowhere. 

One day we had a tight but bearable market for rentals and home ownership; the next day there wasn’t an open apartment south of the White Mountains and a two-bedroom house cost more than the Koh-i-Noor diamond. For a state with sluggish population growth, that seems baffling. 

After some poking around I’ve decided on an explanation using an analogy from chemistry class: What happened in our housing market was like dropping a seed crystal into a super-saturated solution.

As you may remember, it’s possible in certain conditions to make a liquid hold more of a solute than it should be able to contain (the weirdly named Glauber’s salt in water is often the example). When you place a single crystal into such a super-saturated liquid, all the solute crystallizes at once – whamo!

For housing, the pandemic followed by rising interest rates was the seed. Instant change in working habits and life patterns and supply chains, plus more expensive financing, crystallized the problems of price and availability. Whamo!

But what is the solute? That is, what was the situation that has been building, overlooked by many, waiting for that pandemic seed?

I’m afraid that a lot of it – not all of it, but a lot – is people like me.

We own a house on several acres of land and have lived here in our rural-ish town for decades. When new houses are built in town I grumble, because I’m settled and comfortable. I like things the way they are.

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Part of the housing crisis “solute” is that New Hampshire has too many people in my situation and, importantly, we often control government, especially at the local level. (How many renters do you see on zoning boards?)

Unless there’s a way to work around us, it seems, things aren’t going to improve much.

That point was made, a bit gingerly, by Bob Quinn, the CEO of New Hampshire Realtors Association, during a recent webinar about the housing crisis sponsored by New Hampshire Business Review. (You can watch it under the Webinar tab at www.nhbr.com/)

Quinn talked about two recent state polls showing that an increasing number of people think we’re in a housing crisis but that a sizable chunk of people disagree, adding “Sometimes I feel like those in local and state government are over-represented from that group.”

Certainly, the crowds who show up to protest any development, lamenting traffic and more kids in schools and crying “I moved here because it is a quiet town!” are 100% from the things-are-fine-as-they-are camp. 

Over the decades they – or, rather, we – have shaped local regulations with two-acre and even five-acre zoning, special breaks for over-55 housing (none of those expensive kids!) and celebration of conservation efforts that “save land from development,” a phrase I’ve written often.

The result is sluggish addition of homes and apartments – fewer than 6,000 building permits for housing have been issued annually since 2005, less than half the number needed to keep up with growth as estimated by New Hampshire Housing – and most of those are big, expensive houses because zoning and regulations make it hard for builders to profit with anything else.

Supply and demand, worsened by demographic changes that have fewer people living in each apartment or home, have crystalized into our current crisis.

Quinn argued that local zoning has expanded too much beyond its original intention of separating industrial and commercial from residential – a separation that some have argued was mistaken in the first place and has contributed to sprawl. He also hinted that the only solution is for the state legislature to force towns and cities to change, which I think is true.

We need state laws requiring towns, even my town, to ignore complaints from neighbors and approve more multi-family buildings, manufactured housing, duplexes and other alternatives to some expensive homes scattered across the landscape. Recent state laws preventing towns from blocking “in-law apartments” are a small step.

Quinn phrased this in a way most likely to appeal to New Hampshire: it will support “private property rights and the ability of somebody who owns property to use it the way they see fit,” he said. But there’s no question it will require big-government squashing of the local control that we hold dear, or at least purport to hold dear.

Of course, it’s not that simple.

Because we often do need to conserve land from development to protect air and water and keep the state worth living in.

And we do need to have zoning that restricts personal property rights so your neighbor can’t build whatever they feel like looming over your house. And we do need regulations that keep homes from collapsing under snow or septic fields from overflowing, even though they make it harder to build affordable housing.

And we don’t want to let developers slap up as many units as they want whenever they feel like it. And we don’t want the wishes of people who already live in a community to be ignored.

But we can’t keep going the way we are. Finding a balance is necessary but it will be very hard, as is demonstrated once again by my chemistry analogy.

Once you’ve crystallized a super-saturated solution, it is extremely difficult to return it to the original liquid state. You can’t just undo what you did; you’ve got to go through a whole bunch of other procedures.

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