Arguably the biggest challenge facing New Hampshire - the issue that arguably impacts the most other issues - is housing. Consider:
Public education: Across New Hampshire and America, parents get involved in bidding wars for housing based on the perceived quality of the school district. In fact, the #1 driver of home values is the reputation of its school district. At the same time, residents often point to the potential increase in the number of students in a local school - and the increase in education spending and/or diminished quality of education that will follow - as reason to oppose most new housing development. This constricts housing supply in the most affluent communities and neighborhoods - which further increases the value of the homes for those who won the bidding war.
The Aging of New Hampshire: New Hampshire now has the second-oldest median age in America - almost 43.5 years old. One of the few types of residential developments that glide through local land use boards is age-restricted (typically at least 50+) housing. Why? Because they introduce few, if any, additional students into the local school district (see above).
Economic growth: Even post-pandemic, New Hampshire businesses, ranging from retail and restaurants to engineering and technology, regularly cite a lack of workforce as the top impediment to growth. And countless studies and media reports show that a primary impediment to workers - particularly those who are younger and/or lower-wage workers - is that well over 40% of their take home pay would go to transportation and housing. With workforce participation rates and unemployment rates at their lowest in decades, there is intense competition for employees as it is; being non-competitive as a state for housing affordability makes us even more ill-equipped to compete.
Transportation & Infrastructure: There is typically an inverse relationship between housing and transportation: The closer to employers and amenities you live, the higher your housing costs, and the lower your transportation costs. As housing becomes unaffordable or literally unavailable, residents move further from city centers...and their transportation costs increase. This has the effect of increasing traffic; road maintenance, repair, and expansion costs; and (eventually) local infrastructure costs, such as water and sewer systems.
The list goes on: Environmental impact, energy costs, social and economic inequality, degradation of quality of life...if there is a challenging issue that matters to you in New Hampshire, there's a good chance our inability to address the cost and availability of housing is contributing to that challenge.
Politicians at all levels of government, on both sides of the aisle, have identified this as a top-tier problem. But the problem is getting worse. Why?
1. Regardless of whether you have a problem with it or not, the reality is this: If New Hampshire isn't going to make you wear a seat belt or get auto insurance, state government isn't going to make your town enforce new land use laws intended to increase housing stock, diversity, or affordability. Virtually every piece of legislation in recent years designed to address the housing crisis focuses on voluntary local action, including enabling legislation and funds designed to entice local policymakers to act.
HB44, a 2023 bill which would have required local governments to "allow as a matter of right any single-family lot in a residential zoning district served by municipal water and sewer to be used for 4 residential dwelling units," had bipartisan sponsors - and was rejected decisively in February 2023 across lines of party, urban/rural, liberal/moderate/conservative, you name it. The likely reason? "Shall", which in legislative parlance, means "it is a requirement". For better or worse, as it relates to housing and land use policy, that makes it a non-starter.
2. Although local governments generally have the ability to enact such ordinances, virtually every incentive at the town level works against increasing housing stock:
- Because New Hampshire relies on local property taxes to fund public education at a higher rate than any state in America, and because education typically makes up 55%-70% of a town's operating budget, many local voters are sensitive to any increases in local student population, seeing families with school-aged children moving into town as net takers of local public dollars, rather than net donors.
- One's home is generally the most important element of their net worth. All other things being equal, the two factors that drive home values up are the perceived quality of school district in which it sits (often correlated in parents' minds with small class size), and scarcity of available homes in those communities. To many, increasing the supply of homes in a community has the effect of negatively impacting both of those factors - increased student populations, and increased housing supply.
- There is a natural tendency for homeowners to resist change in the neighborhood or community; after all, they generally liked the area quite a bit when they bought their home. The idea that the neighbor's property could go from single-family to a quad-family unit (as HB44 would have allowed, in certain circumstances) generally generates more negative feelings than the prospect that you could increase the utility and value of your property by doing the same thing generates positive feelings.
The bottom line is, state-level elected officials are unwilling and unable to compel action, and local-level elected officials face a system of powerful disincentives against action.
So what can we do?
1. To paraphrase James Carville, "It's the zoning, stupid." Studies have shown that New Hampshire has one of the highest constraints on the production of new housing of any state in America. Particularly with the cultural resistance New Hampshire has to mandate change from the state level, local governments are where the most direct reform can take place. This is where who we elect for city councils, boards of selectpersons, and land use boards, really matter. It's also where showing up in support of those who seek to make local zoning more amenable to additional housing stock has disproportionate impact. In the book "Neighborhood Defenders", significant research shows that those who oppose such reforms are typically much more likely to organize, attend, and voice their opposition than supporters of such reforms. Those who oppose are also much more likely to be white, wealthy, and older - often unrepresentative of the community as a whole.
2. Lower the risk associated with developing housing solutions. One of the most common tactics for both opponents of additional housing development, as well as reluctant land use boards, is to delay decisions (in the case of boards) or clog up the process with litigation (in the case of affluent opponents). The effect of this is to create both additional costs for the prospective developer, as well as additional risk. The effect is to discourage such development - a factor in why so little new housing is being built in New Hampshire. But it also has the effect of limiting the type of development that eventually takes place, since certain types of development (single family homes on a sizable lot, for example) will not incur expensive costs and delays.
In the last few years, there have been a few successful efforts to address this. In 2020, RSA 679 was established, which created a Housing Appeals Board. The appeals board is modeled on the Board of Tax and Land Appeals, attempting to settle disputes between developers and municipalities without going to Superior Court. The board can overrule a local board’s decision and then either side could appeal the board’s decision to the state Supreme Court. Housing advocates largely supported its creation, which does not replace or usurp local land use boards - it simply expedites the appeal process in a cost-effective and time-sensitive manner, reducing cost and risk.
Another example came in 2022, when HB1661 became law. It covers a number of areas, including requiring all towns who have age-specific housing incentives (expedited approval, increased density, reduced lot size requirements, etc.) to apply them identically to workforce housing proposals, effective July 1, 2023. It also set time limits for local ZBAs and Planning Boards to act on applications, and eliminated the ability of Planning Boards to ask for 90-day extensions. It also expanded the definition of "public use" in TIF developments to include workforce housing.
It is key to note that there has bipartisan support for legislation like this (as well as bipartisan opposition!), and as the call for real solutions to our housing crisis only grow, the attention and credit for finding practical solutions should also grow.
3. Reward candidates and legislators willing to directly and practically take on this issue. Earlier, we mentioned the fate of HB44, the "fourplex" bill. Although it was soundly defeated in the House in 2023, it should be noted that its supporters have been methodically making progress on the same bill over the last several years. Indeed, in 2023, the Municipal and County Government Committee recommended the HB44 be passed - and if a majority of those Democrats who voted "no" on it had instead voted yes, it would have passed the House. A few years earlier, this would have implausible - but it is possible to make progress, and reward those legislators and candidates (in 2024) willing to lead on housing. There are conservatives, moderates, and liberals willing to move on housing, and a Republican Governor who has expressed significant interest in the topic, as well.Move The Goalposts will work with anybody willing to address this issue - because, as we said up top, not addressing our housing crisis is making almost everything more difficult.