A statewide consensus: More affordable housing is needed in New Hampshire
|Published: 08-28-2023 8:00 AM
Line up 10 New Hampshire residents and eight of them can come to a consensus on their community: more affordable housing is a must.
If these 10 people are under the age of 35, it’s a unanimous consensus.
The message is clear: In the midst of a housing crisis, New Hampshire residents not only recognize the consequences, but they’re calling for solutions.
In a state where the vacancy rate sits below 1 percent and median rent increased by 11 percent over the last year, finding a place can be luck in itself, but with it, comes a growing price tag.
Now a majority of voters would like to see more affordable rental options across the state, according to an annual survey of attitudes towards the state’s housing crisis, from the Center for Ethics in Society at Saint Anselm College.
“These most recent polling numbers reflect that New Hampshire is becoming aware that fixing the housing shortage is a matter of urgency, even a moral imperative,” said Max Latona, Executive Director of the College’s Center for Ethics in Society, in a press release. “It is becoming more apparent to all of us that the affordable housing crisis is a matter of ethics, as it touches on questions of justice and equity, individual rights and the common good.”
To provide more affordable housing, a variety of housing options need to be available, according to local economists – from single-family homes to multi-unit structures.
A variety of housing doesn’t have to be synonymous with large apartment complexes or campus-like developments. Instead, it could mean adding an accessory dwelling unit to a property or dividing a large home into a duplex.
In most towns and cities, though, strict zoning laws are an instant barrier.
Not only do these laws limit what type of housing developers can build, but it means that if a homeowner wanted to convert their old Victorian into a duplex and house another family, they’d be barred from doing so.
There’s increased support for the “missing middle” of housing – two-, three- or four-unit structures that are in walkable residential neighborhoods.
In the State House, legislators have introduced a bill to fill this “missing middle” to no avail. In the 2023 session, House Bill 44 would have allowed for multi-unit houses to be built on single-family lots. A similar proposal also failed in 2022.
But voters’ support for this policy grows, according to the Saint Anselm survey. This year, 43 percent of respondents supported the legislation, up from 38 percent in 2022.
And a desire for local regulation to change as well has increased. Now 60 percent of polled voters are in support of cities and towns adjusting their ordinances to allow for more housing.
Earlier this year, the New Hampshire Zoning Atlas, a database that catalogs municipalities’ zoning ordinances, revealed that it’s hard to deviate from solely single-family homes in many towns and cities.
In 70 jurisdictions in New Hampshire, two-family homes are outright prohibited.
In Concord, just over 60 percent of the city’s land is permitted for residential or mixed-use construction. Of this area, 62 percent is zoned for single-family structures. Duplexes are allowed on 15 percent of the land and multi-family – three, four and five plus units – each comprise 8 percent.
When Saint Anselm first conducted the housing survey in 2020, 63 percent of respondents agreed with the sentiment that their community needed to build more affordable housing.
By building more affordable housing, seniors would be able to downsize, young people would be incentivized to remain in New Hampshire and the state could reduce homelessness.
Today, housing remains a generational issue with young people and retirees indicating particular support for affordable housing. And one that state lawmakers are focusing on. In the State House, an unprecedented number of bills focused on housing policy, while Gov. Chris Sununu’s biennial budget allocated over $50 million to housing initiatives, like development incentives.
“The severity of the housing shortage is clearly generating unprecedented support for more affordable housing solutions,” said Elissa Margolin, director of Housing Action NH, a statewide affordable housing coalition.