Forum on NH’s affordable housing shortage looks at possible solutions

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Dr. Max Latona, Executive Director of the Center for Ethics in Business and Governance address the Housing We Need Forum. Photo/Kathy Staub

MANCHESTER, NH — On December 11 the Center for Ethics in Business and Governance at St. Anselm College convened 130 people from around the state for a discussion on The Housing We Need. This is the second convening hosted by the Center to discuss the state’s critical shortage of affordable housing. The first event was held in June of 2018. Participants in that event made several recommendations at that time and this event was to update stakeholders on any progress and to plan the next steps. 

According to the Center’s Executive Director, Dr. Max Latona, they decided to take on the housing issue because many of the businesses they were interacting with kept bringing it up. The lack of housing for potential employees was hampering their ability to hire and retain new people to help them grow their businesses. 

“There are many people across the state who have been working tirelessly to resolve the affordable housing situation, but not all of the stakeholders were communicating with each other. Our goal was to use our resources to bring everyone to the table so they could work together,” Latona added. 

Since the first gathering in 2018 legislation at the state level has created a housing appeals board, which would provide a shorter, less costly alternative to solving disputes involving communities and developers. Another bill appropriated $10 million to the state’s housing trust fund and established an annual appropriation of $5 million funded by the real estate transfer tax.

Pending legislation resulting from state housing taskforce

Governor Sununu, left, and Commissioner of the Department of Business and Economic Affairs Taylor Caswell. Photo,/Kathy Staub

Governor Chris Sununu was presented with Housing Action NH’s 2019 Home Matters Award for his leadership in creating a state budget that prioritizes affordable housing. Sununu and New Hampshire Commissioner of Business and Economic Affairs Taylor Caswell discussed the findings and recommendations of the Governor’s Task Force on Housing which released their report at the end of October. 

Sununu formed the task force with instructions to create a report of five pages or less outlining the best actions the state could take to address the housing crisis, and gave them 90 days. “The report had to be meaty but simple so people would read it, and it had to have something for everyone. It needed to include solutions that people in the Southern Tier as well as rural areas could get behind,” he said.

As a result of the findings two freshman legislators, who served on the housing task force, have introduced housing bills for the upcoming legislative session.

Representative Willis Griffith, (D-Manchester) has introduced HB 1629, which is primarily focused on improving process. Included in the bill is a provision that individuals who are elected or appointed to planning and zoning boards receive training, which will be available through the State Office of Strategic Initiatives, and pass a test within six months of taking office.

June Trisciani, who serves on the Manchester planning board, thinks it is a good idea.

“In Manchester we already receive training,” Trisciani said, “and we’re always looking for people. Ideally it is great to have people who have knowledge about things like lighting, construction, and landscape design.”

The city website has information about how to be appointed to a local city board

Other provisions include a 65-day time limit for local boards to make decisions and a bonding requirement to cover court costs of the prevailing party involved in an appeals process.

The bill would also permit communities to allow mandatory inclusionary zoning, which requires property owners to produce housing units which are affordable to low and moderate-income households or provides voluntary incentives to induce property owners to produce affordable housing units. 

The bill also clarifies and redefines workforce housing. It increases the income level for qualifying homebuyers from 100 percent of the median income for a family of four ($66,100 in Manchester) to 120 percent of the median income. Rental units qualify as workforce housing when they are affordable to a family of 3 making less than 60 percent of the median income ($35,700 in Manchester). Housing that excludes minors, has age restrictions, or consists of more than half of the units with less than two bedrooms will not qualify as workforce housing.   

A second bill, HB 1632, sponsored by Representative Joe Alexander (R-Goffstown), outlines state incentive programs designed to increase the supply of affordable housing in the state. It allows tax relief under RSA 79-E , to be extended to housing units included in commercial projects in “downtown” areas and it increases the period of time that tax relief is allowed from 4 to 8 years. It also would allow developers of affordable housing to claim tax relief from the state’s Business Profits Tax. 

The bill also authorizes the State Office of Strategic Initiatives to establish a “Housing Champions” Certification. Interested municipalities who chose to adopt provisions that promote the construction and development of workforce housing would gain access to funding to support those initiatives. 

Both bills will be fast-tracked through the Municipal and County Government committee of the NH House during the first week of January. Griffith cautioned that while the audience may be supportive of these measures, their value might not be obvious to all state legislators. He urged participants to contact their Representatives and express their support for both bills. 

Next steps community-focused

The next phase of the Center’s Housing We Need Initiative will focus on engaging communities in discussions about housing conditions in their towns and cities. They plan to conduct community surveys, host roundtables and convene stakeholders such as developers and people who are responsible for building and fire codes.

Center Co-Director Sarah Jacobs is looking forward to hearing from a broad group of people across the state. “We are happy to work in any community with any group that invites us,” she said.  

Following the morning presentations participants engaged in facilitated discussions on the issue of how individuals and community groups can address the shortage of affordable housing. Each group put forward two recommendations and submitted them to a straw poll. The top three recommendations were: 

  1. Create pro-housing advocacy groups in each community to attend meetings, elect pro-housing officials, educate voters, etc. – 21.4 percent
  2. Educate with data to dispel myths against affordable housing (who needs housing & cost of kids) & create shareable materials – 21.4 percent
  3. Create state-level fiscal incentives to reduce costs and improve the efficiency of the approval process for a variety of housing types – 20.7 percent

What does a community-based housing advocacy group look like? Rep. Susan Almy (D-Lebanon) served on the Upper Valley Housing Coalition for 18 years. Such groups can be very useful in helping local decision-makers understand what kind of housing is needed and what type of developments will fit in best with the community. Recent successes include a renovated tenement building which is part of a housing first program and a 29-unit carbon-neutral development of low-income housing in West Lebanon. She added that it is important to include a broad range of community members in the group, including housing advocates and business leaders. “The bankers were a great help in getting the right people to listen.”