Housing prices are on the rise again in the Granite State. Inventory is low and what’s good news for sellers is bad news for buyers and people looking for homes they can afford. In this episode of NH PBS’ The State We’re In, we get perspective from NHBR reporter Bob Sanders and insights from Jason Sorens at the Saint Anselm Center for Ethics in Society about the housing New Hampshire needs.
Watch the full program below.
Editor’s Note: The transcript below has been edited for length and clarity.
Melanie Plenda: Bob, can you talk us through, you know, where have we seen the most, most growth and why, and, and where have prices been the lowest?
Bob Sanders: They’re always the lowest in Coos, but even they went up 40% there. The average had been going up two digits for the last half-year at least, and last week the average home now sells for $382,000; that’s $18,000 more than last month, it went up nearly $20,000 in a month. We have a lot of people with money in their pockets because they haven’t been able to go to the theater or go out to eat very much, and you have people coming up from all over the country to New Hampshire. In fact, Manchester is the hottest market in the country, according to one survey. We’re the hotspot of the nation right now when it comes to real estate.
Melanie Plenda: As to the state’s employment situation, the governor is going to cut federal jobless benefits and will instead incentivize people to return to work. Can you tell us more about that?
Bob Sanders: There’s a lot of people focused on the $300 extra, and that’s a big deal because the highest benefit we pay is $470-something. But what’s really going to affect people even more drastically is these new enhanced categories that were added as a result of the pandemic plus the extended benefits. With unemployment, you used to get benefits for 26 weeks and then it ended. They extended it in this case to I think it was 53 extra weeks, so a whole extra year. Now that comes to an end on June 19th.
There are other two major categories. One is you have to can’t work because your kids are home from school or they can’t get daycare or you’re quarantined – because you just hung out with somebody who had COVID, or you’re sick yourself, or you’re taking care of a kid who is sick from COVID. They all got unemployment benefits and that’s suddenly going away. These people aren’t just going to lose the $300, they’re going to lose all their benefits. There’s one other category that’s never been done before that really reflects our current economy, and that is a gig worker or the self-employed or the consultant. It even includes business owners: when the business closes, your workers get unemployment, but the business owner doesn’t. Under the expansions, the business owner could also get benefits. You could have a factory with a hundred people and then have to close, and you could collect unemployment. Well, all that’s gone too.
Melanie Plenda: Well, many are saying that the lack of affordable housing is also a factor in why so many jobs are going unfilled. This week the governor asked the federal government for flexibility in spending rent relief funds to make more affordable housing available. So how is that being received, do you think?
Bob Sanders: I think it makes some housing activists kind of nervous, but I have to give the governor points here. I mean, we have $350 million set aside for rent in New Hampshire and when the governor set up a program last year when things were much worse, they couldn’t spend $20 million. So now because of the new way that they do their programs, the federal government gives us an absolute minimum. We’re a small state, we get the minimum and we actually per capita are doing way better than a lot of other states. This is not New York or Chicago with huge housing rental, and we have $350 million to spend when we couldn’t spend $20 million. In two months we’ve set up the program, we spent about $7.5 million, but the truth is that it’s a very slow program. It’s run by the Community Action Programs, or CAPs. They’re bureaucrats, what can you say? They’re used to doing forms and it seems to take forever.
Melanie Plenda: Well, thank you so much for your hard work on that Bob Sanders, reporter for the New Hampshire Business Review. Thanks as always for your perspective. So what else can we do to create the housing that New Hampshire needs? Jason Sorens is the director of the Center for Ethics in Society at St. Anselm College. In 2018, the Center conducted research surveys and a community dialogue session focused on solutions to making housing more affordable. While the project is two years and a pandemic ago, some of the action steps seem even more applicable today. Welcome Jason. So can you give us an overview of the report’s priority recommendations and what, if anything has changed since?
Jason Sorens: Our major recommendations had to do with increasing the supply of housing in New Hampshire. That’s the reason why housing is so expensive. There’s just not enough of it, even before the pandemic, and it’s only gotten worse since then. Our key recommendations in 2018 were to create a dedicated funding source for affordable housing developments, that the state adopt a housing appeals board to make it easier for property owners to appeal zoning and planning board decisions that in their view broke the law, and then our last priority recommendation was to create a steady study commission to look at barriers to density in New Hampshire. We’re looking at ways that New Hampshire can make it easier to infill development places where there are already jobs, where there’s already infrastructure. We want to build more housing in those places; it’s more environmentally friendly and it’s easier for people to get to work when they live in those places.
Melanie Plenda: In one of your papers, you mentioned the importance of framing the affordable housing conversation. Why is that important?
Jason Sorens: When people think about affordable housing or hear that phrase, they sometimes have misinterpretations. They sometimes think that it’s government-subsidized housing or there’s some sort of government regulation that creates this, which is not the case. We just mean we want plentiful housing that people can afford. To have affordable housing you need to have housing that our essential workers can buy: delivery drivers and postal clerks and hairdressers and people like that. We want all of them to be able to afford homes of their own, and that’s very difficult here in New Hampshire. Portsmouth is a really good example where most essential workers would have to spend 30-50% or more of their income on housing just to be able to afford a two-bedroom apartment. If we’re going to have people in our economy that make our economy run, we need to have housing for them, and that means we need to build more of it.
Melanie Plenda: We’ve heard of NIMBY, Not In My Backyard, but you recently wrote about YIMBY, Y I M B Y. What does that mean? And where is the YIMBY town in New Hampshire?
Jason Sorens: YIMBY is Yes, In My Backyard. These are people who want more housing in their communities, who want multiple generations to be able to afford and live in their communities. A majority of New Hampshire voters actually do want more housing, so you could say that YIMBY is really where we should be. Unfortunately, the YIMBY voters often don’t show up to local elections, so a lot of our communities are very NIMBY. But there are some towns in New Hampshire that do allow for a lot of housing to be built. In that particular piece, I looked at the town of Canaan in the Upper Valley where I used to live. What’s interesting about Canaan is that it is right next to Hanover, which has some of the strictest zoning ordinances in the whole state, or even the whole country while Canaan has no zoning at all. As a result of that, it’s easy to build new homes. Canaan is a very attractive town, but it’s also a town that’s affordable. It’s where people who work at Dartmouth and in Hanover often live, and they have to commute longer because of it. They can’t afford to live in Hanover or even Lebanon so they move out to Canaan, and Canaan’s our sort of safety valve for the Upper Valley. It allows for blue-collar workers to live and have a good life. You don’t have to have strict zoning regulations to have a beautiful place to live.
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