NHARPC CORNER: New Hampshire: No Longer a Special Place to Call Home?

By Steve Schneider, Executive Director, UVLSRPC

Every five years regional planning commissions in New Hampshire are required to conduct a regional housing needs assessment (NH RSA 36:47, II).  We are to assess the regional need for housing for persons and families of all levels of income. Traditionally that has meant collecting a lot of demographic data; where do people live, how much does it cost for housing, what are the ages of people occupying that housing, and more. While data collection is important and critical for future planning, it does not address the larger issues associated with housing in our region, specifically housing is scarce, expensive and often a considerable distance from work.  That is why we have formed Keys To The Valley, a bi-state multi region initiative to not only understand at a fundamental level why housing is so difficult to develop but also produce implementable solutions for our communities. 

Keys To The Valley (KTTV) is comprised of the Upper Valley Lake Sunapee Regional Planning Commission in New Hampshire, Two Rivers Ottauquechee Regional Commission and Southern Windsor County Regional Planning Commission in Vermont. Together we represent 67 communities, with a combined population of over 170,000 on both sides of the Connecticut River.  We are home to the largest employer in New Hampshire, Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center, as well as, several colleges and a diverse manufacturing base. 

Vt/NH RPC region

The Keys to the Valley Initiative must lead to action, so we will emphasize the way our homes fit into the puzzle of this place through transportation, regulation, environment, community, health, employment, and more. The Initiative will undertake community engagement and participation, thorough data analysis and develop a toolbox of implementable strategies for creating (or recreating) homes that are needed by our community members. 

Our scope of work includes eleven distinct tasks that vary from data collection to regulation writing, to build out analysis, to community engagement.  It is the community engagement piece that will drive how and what our toolbox and action plan of prioritized targets will look like.  We believe that any real change is going require that our whole community be engaged, working humbly and respectfully together, despite differences in perspectives.  We are proposing to meet with a number of advisory groups that will help us understand how housing impacts their interests.  We will meet with builders, educators, realtors, bankers, seniors, employers, state officials and of course our citizenry.  The response to our requests to participate has been positive. 

Our final product will include a variety of take-aways for our communities.  Of course, there will be the data. Data on housing type, ownership vs. rental, disability, income, age, location of home, location of employer, population, and the monthly cost of housing. We will evaluate land use regulation across the region’s municipalities for a set of pre-determined standards related to housing. This may include: where are new developments permitted? What types of buildings/housing is permitted and at what density? What land is considered fully developed?  We are proposing to develop a rating scale (variables could differently prioritize housing models, relevant infrastructure, and  green space), with input and buy in from Upper Valley towns, to identify areas for development that best meet a set of priorities. across the Upper Valley Region. This suitability analysis could identify high impact, feasible, and culturally appropriate development or reuse areas by unit type. We will perform this analysis under different scenarios , reflecting different population scenarios, climate conditions or  lifestyles). Working in tandem, our localized build-out analyses could evaluate the impact of different housing regulations and how they relate to need, desirability and suitability.

We are proposing to develop case studies of local/regional/national housing models from both a structural and financial standpoint. Models from within the region will be highlighted for their successes and challenges. Non-local models will be incorporated for their potential to address our regional needs in a novel way, while being appropriately tailored for a new context. Models may include model zoning regulations, proposed changes to state regulations, housing rehabilitation programs, housing ownership models, or public/private development examples.  We will estimate prices that are associated with the different models.

The results of our work will be made available on our public website (www.KeysToTheValley.com) and open data portal (in the works). The website is structured to be a main point of contact to engage and communicate with stakeholders. Ultimately, both platforms will host the diverse range of results in an accessible and interactive framework to allow engaged parties to interpret the data, understand the models, utilize the resources, identify priorities, facilitate discussion, and communicate a vision.

Our work will provide our communities with a variety of tools that are appropriate for their size and location.  We fully recognize that this is a lot of work, and that we may not be successful in everything we hope to achieve, however, if we do not make fundamental, substantive changes in how housing is created and sustained, our region will no longer be a special place to call home. 

Steve Schneider is Executive Director of the Upper Valley Lake Sunapee Regional Planning Commission.  Steve can be reached by phone at 603.448.1680 or via email at sschneider@uvlsrpc.org.