NHARPC CORNER: Regional Planning and Coordination are Critical to Addressing New Hampshire’s Housing Crisis

By Todd Horner, Planner with the Southwest Region Planning Commission; Alex Belensz, Planner with the Upper Valley Lake Sunapee RPC; Kaela Tavares, Community & Economic Development Planner with the North Country Council; and James Vayo, Project Manager, Southern New Hampshire Planning Commission.

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 faces a housing shortage that is affecting urban and rural areas alike. There is growing recognition that a lack of housing options is stifling our economy, harming businesses’ ability to recruit employees, placing financial hardship on many working and middle-class families, and, in some cases, leading to housing insecurity and homelessness. This recognition is backed up by the data. Over the past couple of years, rental vacancies have hovered in the range of 1-2%, well below the 5% that’s recognized as an indicator of a balanced market. About half of all renters are “cost-burdened,” paying more than 30% of their income on housing costs. The inventory of homes for sale continues to fall and sale prices continue to climb, often beyond the means of first-time homebuyers.

It has become abundantly clear that the state’s housing crisis is not going to solve itself. Proactive effort, creativity, and collaboration are required to move the needle on housing. With that in mind, New Hampshire’s regional planning commissions are stepping up to promote dialogue, build relationships, and develop strategies critical for addressing the state’s housing needs. This article provides a few examples of how regional planning commission are contributing across the state.

Manchester Housing Task Force

As the largest city in state, Manchester exemplifies how statewide housing affordability challenges are impacting New Hampshire’s urban areas. In 2019, the greater Manchester region faced rental vacancy rates below 2%, while the state’s unemployment rate rose to 6.5%. The result was a doubling in the number of chronically homeless people within the state. Given the scale of the issue, Manchester Mayor Joyce Craig announced the creation of a housing task force. Mayor Craig’s address stated that “the task force will provide recommendations that respond to both the assumptions and the realities of affordable housing in Manchester.”

Composed of real estate professionals, community leaders, developers, community stakeholders, and housing advocates, the Task Force quickly got to work identifying issues affecting housing production and affordability. Southern New Hampshire Planning Commission (SNHPC) Project Manager James Vayo participated on the Task Force and its Zoning, Regulations, and Land Use Subcommittee. The Subcommittee recommendations include:

  • Matching the production of rental units to a healthy vacancy rate;
  • Adoption of the City’s master plan update;
  • A rewrite of the City’s zoning ordinances and development regulations to reflect the master plan’s vision;
  • A revision of the City’s building and fire codes to match the State’s; and
  • Adoption of affordable housing recommendations by the Center for Ethics in Business and Governance at St. Anselm College.

St. Anselm College had previously undergone its own study of housing issues and provided insight to housing in Manchester. Recommendations identified changes to address affordability and focused on providing solutions to density limiting regulations. Restrictions on housing in business districts, limitations on lot coverage, setbacks, frontages, and ADU regulations were all identified as holding back development. Each recommendation allowed for marginally higher density, effectively increasing allowed residential density across the entire City in a distributed way. The intent was to maintain neighborhood character while allowing hundreds of new units on lots which have sat vacant or underutilized for years.

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Keys to the Valley

The greater Upper Valley region’s housing market is large and complex. Major employers attract a large, diverse workforce. Two converging interstate highways enable swift commutes around the region. The region has a housing shortage and affordability challenges; there are notable unsheltered populations as well. Communities on both sides of the Connecticut River are part of a regional housing market with common challenges, albeit with differing housing regulations, policies, and programs.

With these challenges in mind, Upper Valley Lake Sunapee Regional Planning Commission (UVLSRPC) partnered with two neighboring region planning commissions in Vermont to undertake the Keys to the Valley regional housing study.

The study is based on a robust public engagement. In addition to online surveys, UVLSRPC has conducted focus groups, collected personal stories of people’s homes, connected with housing providers, convened advisory experts, published a newsletter, and hosted a website. This approach provides a diversity of perspectives that paints a more complete picture of the region’s housing needs than relying on data alone.

The study found that an aging population will likely increase demand for housing units, even in communities with little projected change in overall population. The study also highlighted the unique needs of supportive housing providers and the populations they serve. The relationship between housing development patterns and municipal fiscal health was another important finding. The region’s municipalities can add needed housing in ways that are consistent with community character by focusing on “missing middle” housing types, such as duplexes and other small, multi-unit structures.

Next steps include compiling findings and recommendations into an online toolbox, and then sharing that toolbox with local leaders for feedback and further discussion. UVLSRPC plans to move forward together with local communities and other partners to address the region’s housing needs.

Monadnock Housing Roundtable

Most of the housing challenges felt across the state are mirrored in the Monadnock Region of southwest New Hampshire. Examples include rising rents and sale prices, dwindling inventory, a mismatch between older housing stock and the shifting needs of today’s households. Overcoming these challenges will require a proactive approach and coordination among different housing stakeholders, including municipalities, employers, developers, homebuilders, real estate professionals, the non-profit sector, and others. Recognizing a need for collaboration and multi-sector dialogue, SWRPC organized the Monadnock Housing Roundtable, a group that meets on a recurring basis to discuss regional housing issues and potential strategies for responding to the housing crisis. The group grew out of an event held in late 2019 by the Greater Keene Chamber of Commerce to highlight housing as an important regional issue. Since then, the group has been meeting virtually throughout the pandemic, which underscores the fact that the need to address the region’s housing challenges has become only more apparent during the public health emergency and economic downturn.

Thus far, the primary role of the Roundtable has been to open a space for housing stakeholders to discuss challenges and to share resources on a regional scale. This is important for a few reasons. First, while much of land use policy is decided at the local level, housing issues and markets span municipal boundaries. The region (and the state’s) housing issues will be difficult to overcome if we try to address them with each local community working in isolation from one another. Second, a regional forum like the Roundtable provides a support network for local advocates. It creates a venue for sharing information, tools, and experiences. Third, it provides a connection between housing policy and advocacy work occurring at the state level and local efforts.

Moving forward, the Roundtable’s work will involve prioritizing particular goals and objectives to focus on. To date, Roundtable members have expressed interest in a number of areas, including the role state legislation might be able to play in shifting policy and incentives at the local level. Activities could also include outreach to additional partners, such as major employers in the area, in order to build a wider coalition interested in effecting change. The group may also consider how to sustain their efforts over the long term—is there an organizational model that’s best suited for sustaining outreach and advocacy work in the years to come?  We won’t solve our collective housing challenges overnight, but through efforts like those of the Monadnock Housing Roundtable, there’s hope that collaboration and collective creativity will move use towards a brighter housing future.

Facilitating Housing Outreach and Discussion with North Country Businesses

There is no singular solution for the affordability, accessibility, and supply challenges that characterize segments of NH’s housing market today. Meeting these challenges will take the education and cooperation of a diverse group of stakeholders; a group that must reach far beyond the longstanding housing advocates of our communities to engage private citizens, businesses, and organizations collaboratively to understand how housing impacts different aspects of our communities. In the northern third of the state, North Country Council’s (NCC) staff is working alongside our business community to understand how housing challenges impact the success of individual businesses and overall health of our economy.

This fall and winter NCC has completed a series of key informant interviews, surveys, and focus groups, to discuss housing with our aging seniors, young professionals, social service providers, municipal leaders, builders, realtors and lenders, and businesses to understand our regions housing needs and opportunities from multiple points of view. In particular, NCC staff met with representatives of the business community to discuss how our short supply of housing, and lack of housing options within financial or physical reach of our local workforce impact their daily operations, ability to grow, and to contribute to their thriving communities. Participants joined together to discuss the opportunities and barriers exist for business investment in housing and brainstormed methods for both coordinated and individual action and investment.

Working Towards the Housing We Need

While housing challenges may vary in detail from region to region, there are more commonalities than differences when looking across the state. Even in areas not experiencing strong population growth, a lack of housing options threatens the prosperity and well-being of local communities. While the toll of the housing shortage falls most heavily on disadvantaged and vulnerable populations, it also impacts a far wider range of families and members of the workforce, including medical staff, teachers, public safety employees, and other professionals. In the end, the housing crisis affects all of us. We collectively depend on nurses to keep us healthy, first responders to keep us safe, grocery workers and food service staff to keep us fed, and many other members of the workforce—our neighbors—to keep our communities functioning on a daily basis.

Luckily, a broad cross-section of partners is interested in making progress. The coalitions that are forming span political persuasions, economic sectors, and interest groups. The state’s regional planning commissions are contributing to the effort by sharing information and resources, facilitating dialogue, and keeping the issue front and center. Overcoming the state’s housing challenges will require a sustained effort - and the regional planning commissions aim to work with their member municipalities and other stakeholders every step of the way.

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Todd Horner is a Planner with the Southwest Region Planning Commission and can be reached at 603.357.0557 and via email at thorner@swrpc.org;

Alex Belensz is a Planner with the Upper Valley Lake Sunapee RPC and can be reached at 603.763.2212 or via email at abelensz@uvlsrpc.org

Kaela Tavares is a Community & Economic Development Planner with the North Country Council and can be reach at 603.444.6303 or via email at ktavares@nccouncil.org; and,

James Vayo is a Project Manager with the Southern New Hampshire Planning Commission and can be reached at 603.669.4664 x307 or via email at jvayo@snhpc.org.