Opinion: For New Hampshire’s housing woes, listen to the people

By JASON SORENS

Published: 09-03-2023 7:00 AM

Jason Sorens, Ph.D., of Amherst, founder of the Free State Project, is senior research faculty for the American Institute for Economic Research.

After the economy, housing affordability was the second most important issue to New Hampshire voters in a recent Emerson College poll. This concern makes sense because, according to data from New Hampshire Housing, home prices are at an all-time high. Soaring mortgage rates drive the cost of buying a home even higher. But there’s no relief in renting because average rents, too, have gone up 28% in just the last three years.

For answers to the housing affordability crisis, policymakers must listen to the voice of the people. A new survey from the Center for Ethics in Society at Saint Anselm College, which I helped design, shows strong voter support for several policy options.

Local planning and zoning regulations that limit where and how landowners can build homes can squash the supply of housing and drive up prices. By a 60% to 34% margin, New Hampshire registered voters supported changing these regulations to allow more housing. Even a majority of homeowners supported these changes. Renters, young people, and Granite Staters 65 or older were especially in favor.

By a 43% to 27% margin, voters also favor state legislation known as the “fourplex bill,” which would legalize two-, three-, and four-unit buildings on lots served by water and sewer systems and zoned for residential use. This bill has repeatedly failed in the New Hampshire House, but similar legislation was enacted into law in Vermont this year in a bipartisan fashion.

Voters also disagree with policies to restrict home-building, even when framed in a positive light. Thus, 64% disagree and only 30% agree that “our suburbs and rural towns should have mostly just single-family homes; apartments, duplexes, and townhomes should be built only in cities.” And 59% disagree and only 35% agree that “New Hampshire should do more to prevent development and keep the state the way it is.”

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On all these questions, there’s been a big swing since last year. Support for zoning reform went from +12 to +26. Support for the fourplex bill went from +3 to +16. Opposition to banning multifamily from suburbs and rural areas went from +24 to +29, and opposition to “doing more to prevent development” went from +11 to +24.

These numbers amount to a groundswell of support for state and local action to remove barriers to new housing. With such a clear mandate, zoning reform should be sweeping the state.

Unfortunately, a loud minority stands in the way of alleviating the housing shortage and driving down prices. Many of our towns rely on non-representative, unscientific surveys in their planning process. These surveys tend to be captured by anti-housing activists, organizing their forces to take control of the narrative.

In the affluent suburb of Windham, a 2020 planning survey showed 73% wanting to limit residential growth and only 19% in favor of continuing to allow it. But less than 12% of registered voters participated. Even so, the planning board used this unrepresentative data as a justification to deny projects.

In my town, Amherst, master plan survey participation was little better, but again, the planning board assumes this incomplete information gives them a mandate to rewrite zoning to restrict housing. I don’t mean to pick on these towns; the problem is universal.

Three Boston University political scientists discovered in their acclaimed book, ”Neighborhood Defenders,” that people who participate in New England local politics, especially anything relating to development, are far whiter, older, wealthier, more home-owning, and more male than the general population. As a result, local land use boards and even state legislators get a skewed sense of what voters really want.

To solve problems that affect all Granite Staters, policymakers need to listen to all Granite Staters, not just the few political activists who hijack local conversations. The representative, scientific survey from the Center for Ethics in Society clearly shows that the mandate of the voters is in favor of reform that frees up the housing market. State legislators should not be afraid to intervene and fix the broken local planning process; the voters are on their side.

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