Implementing NH’s Regional Housing Needs Assessments
The information contained in this article is not intended as legal advice and may no longer be accurate due to changes in the law. Consult NHMA’s legal services or your municipal attorney.
New Hampshire’s nine Regional Planning Commissions (RPCs) have each recently completed a Regional Housing Needs Assessment (RHNA) working in concert with one another. While the RHNA’s are now complete, each of the RPC’s are transitioning to an implementation phase to continue the conversation, help communities plan for housing needs, and establish strategies and next steps to help address affordability.
A quarter of the existing housing inventory in the 34-town Southwest Region Planning Commission (SWRPC) Region was constructed prior to the 1940s, which represents a much older housing stock when compared to that of New Hampshire (19.3%) and of the United States (11.9%). Pre-1940 housing in the SWRPC Region are disproportionately rental units as well (31.7%). Older housing units are generally more expensive to live in, especially with respect to wintertime heating costs. However, many of these homes, especially single-family structures, are valued for their historical and rural character. A comparatively older housing stock will result in a disproportionate need to renovate or replace existing units or to make them more energy efficient compared to other parts of New Hampshire or the United States.
Between 2010 and 2020, vacant units for rent and vacant units for sale declined by 36.3%, dropping from an estimated 1,052 units to 671 units in the SWRPC Region. In New Hampshire, vacant units for rent and vacant units for sale declined at a slightly slower rate (34.2%) from 15,370 units to 10,110 units. While the share of available vacant housing units decreased, there was a 21.3% increase in the number of housing units for seasonal, recreational, or occasional use in the SWRPC Region (706 units). The increased use of housing for seasonal purposes is significantly higher than the State as a whole, which increased 13.6% (8,393 units). The increasing share of seasonal housing units coupled with a decreasing number of vacant units available for rent or for sale adds to the challenge of meeting workforce and other year-round resident housing needs.
In the Nashua Regional Planning Commission (NRPC) area, the demand for housing has far outstripped supply over the past several years resulting in significant increases in housing costs for both owners and renters. Indeed, the lack of available housing, especially rental units, is challenging the ability of many people to find housing at all. Similar trends can be found throughout the state. According to the New Hampshire Housing Finance Authority (NHHFA), the vacancy rate for all rental units in the Nashua area dropped from an already low 2.8% in 2011 (5% is considered to be a healthy vacancy rate) to .3% in 2022. The vacancy rate for studio apartments and for 3 and 4-bedroom units is effectively 0%. The home buying market is also suffering from a very low inventory of homes available for sale. The Multiple Listing Service (MLS) Housing Inventory indicates the average number of months to absorb current properties listed for sale dropped from over nine months in 2011 to less than one month by 2023. Generally, a six-month supply is considered to be a healthy market.
Given the lack of overall inventory, it is not surprising that housing costs have escalated sharply in recent years. The median purchase price for owner-occupied homes in the region increased from $216,000 in 2012 to $435,000 in 2022, an increase of 101%. That said, 48% of all homes on the market and almost 80% of condominiums are considered to be affordable to home ownership households earning 100% of the median income. With the sales price of new homes approaching $500,000, however, only 10% are affordable to median income home ownership households. Increasing the supply of affordable homes for sale, therefore, will be challenging.
On the rental side, the combined impacts of soaring prices and low inventory are much more significant. Between 2013 and 2022, median monthly rents for all unit types in the region increased from $1,169 to $1,904 with two-bedroom units averaging $1,980. The cost of a one-bedroom unit, however, rose at a much sharper rate. Rents for one-bedroom units now average $1,863 per month and the average cost for a studio unit is $1,525. Based on most recent available estimates, only 35.2% of all units and 15.6% of two-bedroom are considered to be at or below the affordability threshold of $1,650 per month. As a result of the lack of affordable units, 48.1% of all renter households in the region are now considered to be “cost burdened” meaning that they spend 30% or more of their income on housing costs. For the rental housing market to return to a healthy balance, a significant increase in the availability of rental housing units will be required.
Outreach and Engagement
Outreach and engagement were a core-component of the RHNAs and continues to be during the implementation phase. In the North Country Council (NCC) Planning Region, continued and deeper engagement will also be an essential part of implementing the recommendations presented within it. Cooperation and increased understanding of housing conditions and needs at the municipal level will lead to new programs, policies, and permitting changes needed to increase housing choices and affordability for residents. In our work NCC strives to increase knowledge of the unique housing conditions in each community and spur local action.
NCC has developed community specific factsheets for each municipality in the region. These factsheets can be used by towns to establish a baseline of facts about who lives in a community, what housing exists today, what is needed today and in the future, and what resources and infrastructure exist as tools.
NCC is also working with communities that are tackling housing needs through Planning and Zoning regulatory changes as part of the InvestNH HOP Grant Program administered by PlanNH and New Hampshire Housing Finance Authority (NHHFA). The data, fair share housing projections, and tools within the RHNA are packaged up and shared with each community and their project consultants to ensure that the actions cities and towns take today align with our regional understanding of the challenges and future needs forecasted within the Fair Share analysis.
NCC is reaching beyond our typical municipal stakeholders to distribute RHNA data and recommendations to employer groups looking to drive local solutions. By widening our reach to include these stakeholders, communities can find new housing advocates for local and regional efforts.
The Rockingham Planning Commission (RPC) Regional Housing Needs Assessment is being used as a guidance document to further regional and local conversations on housing. All too often the fallout from the Regional Housing Need Assessment is hyper focused on the “fair share” number for each community. Focusing solely on “fair share” numbers at the community level distracts from the opportunity to work collaboratively and leverage shared resources that could have real impact on housing availability. If communities collectively consider where water, sewer, and transportation infrastructure co-occur, sound planning decisions can be made to move the needle on the housing challenges we face as a region. With that in mind, the theme of the Rockingham Planning Commission outreach efforts is housing is more than just a number.
To advance the housing conversation at the local level, the RPC is:
- Hosting a series of municipal officials’ forums to discuss the factors that influence housing via presentations on housing development from a developer perspective, the capacity of water and wastewater availability, impacts from natural hazards, and the suitability of available land.
- Integrating discussion on housing into all our community planning work including talking about housing in the context of water resources protection, infrastructure availability and investment, coastal climate hazards, and the transportation network.
- Highlighting areas where water, sewer, and transportation infrastructure co-occur and support opportunity to increase housing options.
- RPC staff is providing overview presentations of the RHNA to many of our member communities that are working on master plans, regulation audits, or ordinance work through the InvestNH Housing Opportunity Program (HOP) grants.
The goal of the Rockingham Planning Commission RHNA outreach effort is to reach consensus on a regional housing approach that looks beyond municipal boundaries and supports housing development consistent with wise use and careful stewardship of the region’s natural and man-made resources.
Meeting Regional Needs
Lakes Region Planning Commission (LRPC) has completed its regional housing needs assessment and has met with its commissioners several times to discuss implementation of the projected fair share housing allocations by community. Recent court decisions, state legislation, and the creation of the housing appeals board (HAB) intended to address the housing crisis have clarified the obligation towns have when it comes to affordable housing. It is clear, for instance, that some communities will want to change their regulations to allow for greater housing density. For this reason, LRPC will focus its implementation activity on helping towns 1) identifying areas of the community where sewer and water could assist with development goals and 2) identifying areas of the community that should be protected from higher density development.
The Fair Share Analysis for the CNHRPC region has identified a target of an additional 8,215 units through 2040 in our twenty-community region. To assist our communities in meeting the region’s future housing needs, CNHRPC staff will utilize the NH Housing Toolbox, which was a key product of the Regional Housing Needs Assessment process developed in coordination with the NH Office of Planning and Development and a consulting team lead by Outwith Studio.
The toolbox offers a sampling of twenty tools available to communities in the State that can be used to increase housing production. These tools are essentially planning and zoning strategies that range from specific actions, such as the adoption of incentives, to more generalized approaches, such as the encouragement of mixed-use developments and improvements to existing cluster development ordinances. The toolbox can be downloaded at https://www.nhhousingtoolbox.org.
Strategies and Next Steps
One strategy, proposed by the Upper Valley Lake Sunapee Regional Planning Commission (UVLSRPC), is the creation of a Homeowner Developer Utility (Utility). A Homeowner Developer Utility (Utility) would seek to address a number of housing barriers by making housing production more attainable, especially to moderate- and low-income households. Assistance may include design and permitting, financing, construction management, legal aid, and/or rental management. This solution was supported in the UVLSRPC’s RHNA, and as part of the Keys to the Valley initiative, a bi-state effort.
To further this Utility concept, UVLSRPC, and partners, are taking responsibility. This means advancing a utility program. The program includes components to provide immediate assistance for home creation and planning for long term organizational sustainability. The goal is to plan the planners out. The first stage will be a Home Creators Expo to occur on May 6th in Hartford, Vermont. Any municipality might benefit from a Homeowner Developer Utility, no matter their regulations.
Another strategy, proposed by the Strafford Regional Planning Commission (SRPC), is the use of scenario modeling tools to visualize the effects of housing, land use, and zoning policies. SRPC ran an analysis of buildable land to determine the amount and locations of land in the region that could be buildable for residential purposes. This analysis began by mapping all of the zoning districts in the region that allow any kind of residential use, and then “subtracted” all land containing water, wetlands, conservation land, steep slopes, and already developed lands. The result was a GIS data layer showing all of the land in the region where new residences could be built given the current zoning regulations and existing environmental constraints. This data was also quantified to show the number of acres in each of the region’s municipalities that could be developed.
Housing needs projections from SRPC’s RHNA determined that the region as a whole will need 9,520 new housing units by 2040. The City of Somersworth will need 748 new housing units and the Town of Barrington will need 559 housing units in the same time frame. In the coming months, SRPC will be working on new projects utilizing scenario modeling tools and the RHNA’s developable land data to show where these new housing units in the City of Somersworth and Town of Barrington could be located. One of the results from these new projects will be GIS maps and data that display a variety of options for types and locations of new housing units in these two municipalities. These scenario modeling tools have great power when used in combination with policy making. We will be able to make better policies if we understand up front and can visualize what the effects and impacts of the policies will be on the landscape of the community.
For some, it may seem like there’s nothing to be done, the housing crisis is too big and the lift seems altogether too heavy. It’s true, the housing crisis is challenging and many of the variables are out of our control. Still, there are many process and regulatory improvements communities can make, and like most challenges, tackling one aspect at a time can lead to housing solutions. Please consider the following concepts proposed by the Southern New Hampshire Planning Commission (SNHPC):
- Begin with community goals in mind: Start with an update of your community master plan as it is the foundation of all planning efforts. Through this public process, the community’s vision and housing goals are identified. Next, as community needs change, zoning and land use regulations need to mirror the changing needs. Assess zoning and land use regulations to identify roadblocks. Set up metrics to track needed regulations changes and corresponding master plan goals. Finally, set up a schedule to evaluate proposed changes and make modifications.
- Allow for flexibility within the regulations: Zoning, site and subdivision regulations are typically rigid and work under the premise of one size fits all, whereas development proposals are all unique. Flexibility within zoning can be established through a Conditional Use Permit (CUP) process that can include specific criteria. Flexibility is also critical in supporting repurposing of existing buildings or creating infill projects.
- Support community businesses: Vibrant communities support vibrant businesses, and vibrant businesses create vibrant communities. NH businesses have shared that the lack of housing supply has become a prohibiting factor to attract, retain, and even afford staffing. What can be done? Allow businesses to build housing for staff on the same site as their business.
- Consider community needs: People of all ages have shared their stories about wanting smaller, low-maintenance, and affordable housing. Listen to those in your own community: young working couples, parents with kids, transient/visiting workers, larger families, recent retirees, and older adults needing assistance. Ask them, “what is your ideal type of housing?” and create allowances for it.
- DIY and Housing: New Hampshire understands the do it yourself An integral part of meeting our housing needs is for current homeowners to adapt their home to their needs, which in some cases means an allowance to create additional units. This housing niche is filled with a variety of housing types, such as smaller, accessory dwelling units (ADUs); conversions of older and larger single-family homes to multiple units without changing the footprint; allowing tiny homes and tiny home harbors (existing properties that can be the parent lot to a tiny home). These types of allowances offer potential to both rural and urban homeowners as a means to age in place, in the comfort of their community.
- Density is not a four-letter word: Whether it’s one additional unit, 20, or 100, density can be a sticking point. Consider a scientific approach to density by the quality of soils and availability of groundwater. The science, balanced with community vision and housing need, would result in additional housing and perhaps more diversity in housing types. For example, soils suitable to support duplexes on the same lot size as single-family homes, would double the density without much additional cost in building or infrastructure.
- Communicate the type of growth wanted: We all have opinions, and when it comes to growth and development, developers often are open to input from the community. One simple tool to help guide developers is to create a visual guide. Local land use boards, such as the planning board or historic district commission, can develop a visual guide by researching and finding examples of buildings and building details that they feel fits in with their community character. By incorporating public input, the visual guide can become a useful tool to assure the community that new development will take into account their recommendations.
The nine regions teamed up to write this article and present a range of resources available. If you are interested in learning more, please visit the NHARPC website at: https://www.nharpc.org/rhna/. Many, if not all, of the examples cited above are available to municipalities from all nine regions.