NIMBYism and misguided zoning: Despite need and demand, roadblocks remain

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Lloyd’s Hills Apartments, a 28-unit project in Bethlehem, built by Affordable Housing Education and Development. Courtesy photo.

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While there is overwhelming support for affordable housing and rapid permitting of proposed housing developments, according to a statewide poll conducted by the Saint Anselm College Center for Ethics in Society, many communities are still putting up roadblocks to such development.

The study, released in January, shows NIMBYism—the Not In My Back Yard objection to specific projects—while still persistent is actually less of an impediment. Instead, the main barrier to affordable housing is voters who are reluctant to roll back planning and zoning regulations that are responsible for constraining the construction of new homes.

The survey conducted in spring 2020 shows that 63% of NH voters support more affordable housing even in their own communities and want to “limit the legal games that some municipalities might play to discourage development.” However, many voters do not seem to realize that tight zoning regulations and affordable housing are inconsistent goals in NH, the report states.

While NIMBYism is less of an impediment, it is still a roadblock that developers must overcome. There are still naysayers who oppose projects. What complicates matters is they are not on the same page about what they do and don’t want in their backyard. “Homeowners prefer single-family homes. Non-homeowners prefer developments that are new builds that come with either city-provided or developer-provided infrastructure, that are not age-restricted, and that include both low-income units and luxury units,” the report states.

The report, presented at the Housing We Need forum in December 2020, goes on to state homeowners, in general, don’t want apartments, condos, or mixed-use developments—all essential to a healthy housing market with affordable workforce options—and they want smaller developments.

“Non-homeowners can also be NIMBYs, but in a different way. They don’t like teardowns, perhaps because they are worried about gentrification, and they want new infrastructure. But in other ways, non-homeowners are more YIMBY [Yes In My Back Yard] in their views. They want mixed-income developments, and they strongly dislike age restrictions,” according to the study.

Where there is agreement brings a glimmer of hope to affordable housing advocates. Both homeowners and non-homeowners dislike the trend toward age-restricted developments—the 55-plus communities that have proliferated across the state—which suggests that “New Hampshire municipalities are often getting the politics of planning and zoning wrong,” the report states. “They assume voters worry about ‘kids in schools’ and prefer seniors-only housing, but the opposite is true. It is possible that city managers and planning board members worry more about the supposed fiscal impacts of new development than regular voters do.”

Overcoming Stereotypes

One of the biggest challenges to developing more workforce housing is the stereotypes people hold about affordable housing, says Robert Tourigny, executive director for NeighborWorks Southern NH, which even as a nonprofit developer often runs into opposition. As affordable housing advocates, these groups have spent years trying to turn the tide.

“We’re developing to a segment of the market that is underserved. It’s important for local elected officials to understand [and] hopefully embrace it and serve as a model for other communities,” he says.

It is possible to overcome NIMBYism. Tourigny tells of an abutter to a project who had opposed development for years until she looked up NeighborWorks properties and inspected them for herself. “She said, ‘these people take good care of their properties; they’re nice looking, attractive buildings. I’ve opposed development on this site for years. I know it’s inevitable something is going to get built there. I would not be opposed to having these people as neighbors.’ I was flabbergasted,” he says.

Creating Balanced Communities

Lorraine Stuart Merrill, Jay Childs, and Peter Francese are reuniting 10 years later to produce a sequel documentary to “Communities & Consequences: The Unbalancing of New Hampshire’s Human Ecology, and What We Can do about it.” Courtesy Photo

Most NIMBYism is driven by fear that affordable housing will attract mainly younger families that will add more students to schools, strain school budgets and drive up tax rates. To keep the student population down, communities restricted or prevented family friendly building in favor of senior housing, says Peter Francese, who founded “American Demographics Magazine.” He and co-author Lorraine Stuart Merrill, who wrote about agriculture and land use in NH for more than 30 years, released “Communities & Consequences: The Unbalancing of New Hampshire’s Human Ecology, & What We Can Do About It” in 2008. The book called for changes to land use policies to avoid the state’s current crisis.

Francese saw the challenges first hand, tagging along with developer Dick Anagnost of Anagnost Companies. “As he was preparing to write the book, I brought him to two different planning board meetings. I was on my third hearing, yet applications for over-55 that came in after mine got approved that night in one hearing,” says Anagnost. “He was shocked to see that if you label it over-55, it gets approved but if it is family or workforce, it takes one to three years.”

Anagnost says the state has been talking about increasing the stock of affordable housing for years but is not even close to catching up to the need. He adds he got into the affordable housing business because he owned a Manchester Harley-Davidson dealership, and his mechanics and store clerks were driving from towns north and west of Concord because those were the only places they could afford.

This imbalance has contributed to NH having one of the oldest populations in the nation. Mike Claflin, executive director of Affordable Housing Education and Development (AHEAD) in Littleton, says homeowners in NH have a higher median age, and without a healthy mix of affordable housing options, communities will lose some of their vibrancy.

“If towns don’t appear to want young families in their communities, that’s a problem. These are the people who will serve on boards and volunteer and bring the real resiliency these little communities need, but if there is no housing that they can live in and afford, they are not going to come. To say that you don’t want these people to come here, I think it is incredibly short-sighted,” Claflin says.

Seeing their dire warnings book unfold in the state, Francese and Merrill released a follow-up book in 2020, “Communities & Consequences II: Rebalancing New Hampshire’s Human Ecology.”

“A balanced community is one that has enough housing for everyone—young people, working people, those who have a family or want to start one,” says Francese. But many NH communities are out of balance because of a “persistent myth” that affordable housing drives up taxes. State data shows most school populations are declining, even in communities where affordable housing was built.

“It’s totally false, but people believe the myth so firmly that every time there’s a planning board meeting, people are getting up and shouting that if a town allows these new units to be built, school taxes will go right through the roof,” says Francese. He and Merrill say it’s a holdover from the 80s and 90s when families moved to NH in large numbers, new schools had to be built and some communities grew very fast. It left some in shock at the pace of change.

The lack of affordable housing feeds the workforce shortage NH has been experiencing for years. Among the industries acutely feeling the effects of that shortage are assisted living, nursing homes and elder care facilities that were struggling to hire staff even before the pandemic.

Moving Projects Ahead

As the owners of two assisted living facilities in Durham, Harmony Homes at Hickory Pond and Harmony Homes By the Bay, John and Maggie Randolph know how hard it is to find staff. When they learned that some of their 80 employees were commuting an hour or more each way, they increased salaries by as much as 21% over two years to help with the high cost of housing.

A rendering of Harmony Place, being built in Durham. Courtesy photo.

After seeing the effect the lack of affordable housing had on staff, they took matters into their own hands. Currently they are building seven one-bedroom apartments for staff along with a childcare center, which are due to be completed in June or July on the site of one of their assisted living facilities in Durham. They are also planning to build affordable units in Dover.

The Randolphs hope the Dover project will be a model for the Seacoast, and they plan to build more. “We do meet with a lot of opposition because it’s called affordable housing and a lot of people say, ‘it’s going to ruin my neighborhood,’” John Randolph says. “Then we explain that affordable housing in Dover is for somebody making $42,000. That’s your beginner firefighters, your schoolteachers, your police officers … people who are struggling to afford to live in the town they work for.”

Harmony Homes’ proposed affordable housing units in Dover. Courtesy photo.

Building affordable housing is an expensive proposition, though, for developers. Randolph says a developer has to have enough resources to survive the approval process. The Randolphs bought the Dover property a year ago and will break ground soon.

“You have to be patient and tenacious,” he says. “If you want to come in and build in 90 days, then pick the low hanging fruit [age-restricted housing], but if you want a more aggressive use of the property, you might have to take a little bit more time with the towns that you’re working with,” he says.

Lloyd’s Hills Apartments, a 28-unit project in Bethlehem, took just over five years to complete, says Claflin of AHEAD. “Initially there was quite a bit of pushback,” says Claflin. “We finally got over the finish line, and tenants began moving in at the end of February.”

AHEAD operates primarily in northern Grafton and Coos counties. Claflin says rural areas are even more difficult to build in than the more populated Southern regions.

“Bethlehem is a good example of how people are afraid of the unknown. A vocal minority can really push back and cause a project like this to be delayed,” he says. The delay added $2 million to the final cost of the project.

NeighborWorks Southern NH recently completed The Merrimack Townhomes, a new rental development of 45 townhouse-style apartments in nine buildings and the first affordable family project in the town of Merrimack. Tourigny says the process was fairly smooth because the land had already been approved for elderly development, but they wanted to do affordable family housing.

“There were some hoops to jump through. We had to go through the ZBA and the planning board to make the case that it wasn’t going to be more impactful on the community than the previously approved senior housing project,” he says. “We had to reduce the number of units from 60 to 45.”

Tourigny says a similar project in Londonderry, Townhomes at Whittemore Place, took 10 years to bring to fruition from the initial discussions with the town to actually building the project. “We had to lay a lot of groundwork to help them understand,” he says.

Lakes Region Community Developers (LRCD) bought two properties in 2016 to preserve affordable units. LRCD also recently completed renovations on Ames Brook Apartments, a 40-unit apartment complex located in Ashland.

Executive Director Carmen Lorentz says their efforts often involve preservation of affordable housing stock as well as new builds. But they are trying to build affordable single-family homes for first-time homebuyers. Without the federal incentives that support affordable multifamily projects, Lorentz says the only way to make single-family development work is if the community really comes together. LRCD is working with the Eastern Lakes Region Housing Coalition on a single-family project in Wolfeboro to build 20 houses targeted to people who earn 75% to 120% of the area median income.

“We got some grant funding to help pay for the road, water and sewer and don’t have to roll that into the cost,” says Lorentz. “We would like to keep the price as close to $200,000 if we can. If we can show that this model works, maybe other communities will want to work with us.”

LRCD is also looking for ways to do supportive housing for those who are chronically homeless or dealing with mental health or substance use disorder, says Lorentz. “There are pretty significant barriers to qualify for typical rental housing for these people,” she says.

The Lakes Region, like the Mount Washington Valley, is heavily reliant on tourism, which pits demand for workforce housing against short-term vacation rentals and second homes, and it may take businesses stepping up to move the needle. “There is a disconnect between the business community and the people who make the local land use decisions,” says Lorentz. “We are now starting to run into the NIMBYs….With market demand so high, I think some communities are happy to just let wealthy people live there. Some recognize the need for young families and workers but not all.”

Pockets of Progress

Filmmaker Jay Childs, who produced documentaries based on “Communities and Consequences,” says in the 2008 film, the consequences were more theoretical, but now that the crisis is here, people are starting to take notice.

“It was a coming storm, something that was on the horizon, but now in a lot of these communities it is having the economic impact that was predicted. There were quite a few rural communities where I had good conversations with people. School populations were going down, and now they are dying to have young families move in and trying to find ways to make the case,” Childs says.

The film encourages people to reach across city and town boundaries to work together and find shared opportunities, says Merrill. “I’ve been hearing from some communities that their planning board is putting this issue on the agenda for some time during the year as a result of the movie, so at least they’re going to be looking into it with more open minds,” she says. “That is all we can ask.”

Among the success stories detailed in the film is the passage of a workforce housing ordinance in Conway. Childs says strong leaders stepped up to do the hard work with town boards, including Victoria Laracy, the then executive director of the Mount Washington Valley Housing Coalition, and fellow coalition member Andy Dean, a partner at the law firm of Cooper Cargill Chant. Dean says a lack of workforce housing in Conway reached a boiling point. “[It] got to a point where we were tired of just talking about it,” Dean says.

The town was not prepared to take on the task of crafting a workforce housing ordinance, he says, so it was up to the coalition. “I think a lot of planning boards view their role as interpreting and enforcing existing zoning regulations but not to be progressive and think about solving problems, so it is up to the advocacy groups to make change happen,” Dean says.

He adds the coalition looked at ordinances from other NH communities and other states, going through 15 to 20 drafts to develop the framework. “We needed input from all the other experts and the town planning board,” he says. “We met with engineers, talked to New Hampshire Housing Finance Authority. We wanted to make it blend in with what is already there and compliment what is already in the zoning.”

Who serves on planning and zoning boards can influence development. There are many older residents serving on planning boards because they are retired and have more time, but they may also cling to a style that doesn’t meet the needs of the community or even their own family.

“One member hadn’t really appreciated the problem until his son tried to come back here to live and couldn’t find affordable housing,” says Dean. “That was really what convinced him this was a big problem. The older generation may have a vision of children coming home and potentially spending time with grandchildren, and it just isn’t possible.”

Maine-based Avesta Housing, which has built several affordable housing projects in NH, is working on River Turn Woods Phase I, the first of several residential phases at Technology Lane in Conway and will create much-needed new, mixed-income housing.

“We partnered with the Mount Washington Valley Economic Council to purchase the land from them,” says Rebecca Hatfield, vice president of real estate. “It will be serving families and individuals at 50% and 60% of area median income.”

A Business Issue

Dean says affordable housing is workforce housing. “It is for people who work in your community. Being a resort community, a lot of the workers here are doing typical hourly wage jobs, and some are working multiple jobs to support their family,” he says. “One reason we were successful is because we had a lot of buy-in from employers, such as Settlers Green, Cranmore and Storyland who can’t find workers. When your larger taxpayers are complaining about the same issue, the town is probably paying a little more attention to it.”

Harrison Kanzler, executive director of the Mount Washington Valley Housing Coalition, says they have the support of ski resort executives who came to the area and couldn’t find affordable housing. “Walmart is even willing to provide grants for projects. Housing is an economic problem, and businesses are starting to feel it in their wallet,” says Kanzler.

Another area with a severe shortage of workforce housing is the Upper Valley. Two of the region’s employment powerhouses, Dartmouth College in Hanover and Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, with more than 1,000 job openings, are developing their own housing solutions. Dartmouth-Hitchcock Health has its own project underway and has issued a request for proposals to build 466 units of housing.

Graduate student housing being developed in Lebanon. Courtesy of North Branch Construction.

It is also benefitting from another project. North Branch Construction in Concord is working on a project in Lebanon for the Michaels Organization, a national developer of graduate student housing. Joseph Campbell, president of North Branch Construction, says the 300-unit, 600-bed project will cost $63 million.

“The units will be offered to graduate students first, and any still available will be open to area renters, such as Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center employees,” says Campbell. “It will take a significant strain off of the existing housing market because all these students are currently scattered in various apartments throughout Hanover and Lebanon.”

Council on Housing Stability

The lack of starter homes and low rental vacancy rates contributes to homelessness, which was exacerbated by the pandemic.

Recognizing the related challenges, Gov. Chris Sununu created a Council on Housing Stability in November 2020 to develop and implement a plan to address the evolving housing stability needs for all citizens. Four primary workgroups have been established including: planning and regulation; data analytics and integration; housing instability and homelessness system; and regional leadership and coordination.

“The council is doing an excellent job of realizing it is not a one-size-fits-all,” says Kanzler. “This is a long-haul problem and it will take years, but the answer is more housing.”


These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative as part of our race and equity project. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.