Summit Brings N.H. Housing Issues into Focus

Oct 16, 2015

Donald Trump was not among the speakers at this week's housing summit, but a variation on his campaign slogan did make the rounds.
Credit Casey McDermott, NHPR

It’s hard to find housing in New Hampshire, according to those who spoke at a summit on the issue in Manchester on Friday — but it’s particularly challenging for young professionals, older adults and those with limited incomes.

Addressing this is a key part of ensuring the state’s economic viability in the long run, according to the local officials who spoke at the event.

A group of policymakers, presidential candidates and others with a stake in the housing landscape convened at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics for a daylong conference focused on housing issues at the local and federal level. The J. Ronald Terwilliger Foundation for Housing America’s Families, which counts former Massachusetts senator Scott Brown as a member of its executive committee, hosted the event.

One panel focused specifically on New Hampshire’s housing challenges. Speakers underscored a handful of factors complicating access to housing and the implications for the state as a whole. Among the major challenges identified at the forum:

  • A shortage of rental housing

The statewide vacancy rate for two-bedroom units in New Hampshire has been on the decline since 2009 and now sits at 2.2 percent. According to the most recent report from the New Hampshire Housing Finance Authority, the squeeze is especially tight in Belknap, Merrimack and Rockingham Counties, where the vacancy rate is below 2 percent.

Credit New Hampshire Housing Finance Authority 2015 Residential Rental Cost Survey

  • A shortage of affordable rental housing

As noted at Friday’s summit, it’s not just a challenge for people to find available housing — it’s also hard to find places within their budget. Only about 11 percent of two-bedroom rental units statewide fall below “affordable” rent levels, according to the most recent data from the NHHFA.

Credit New Hampshire Housing Finance Authority 2015 Residential Rental Cost Survey

  • A lack of options for young professionals

Taylor Caswell, with the Community Development Finance Authority, relayed one conversation he had with a 30-something professional who works at a biotech company in the Upper Valley —he has a lot of ambitious people working for him, but a lot of them are having trouble finding places to live.

“Every place I go in the state, that’s the common denominator whenever we talk about, how are we going to get these younger crowds to stay in New Hampshire and build their businesses — well, where the heck are they going to live?”

Indeed, the problem extends into other regions of the state, too. Kevin Smith, the town manager for Londonderry, pointed to the economic development underway in his community as a factor driving demand for more housing for young professionals. The town isn’t necessarily able to meet that demand right now, he said, but they’re working on it.
 

  • A lack of options for elderly residents who are looking to stay in their communities

It’s becoming increasingly important for communities to provide options that allow senior citizens to stay close to home as they age, Smith noted. Londonderry has tried to adapt to increasing demand in this area by overseeing the development of elderly apartments and an assisted living facility, Smith said, but affordability in this area is also an ongoing challenge.

“Even though we have senior housing apartments going up, the rents start at about $1,500,” Smith said. “And what we heard from a lot of seniors is, that’s just not viable for them.”

To address this, Smith said the town tried to incentivize the development of more affordable senior housing in the area by offering land at next-to-nothing to a developer who has handled similar projects in other New Hampshire communities.

Statewide solutions in the works

As for potential solutions to these challenges, state Sen. Dan Feltes and others called attention to a few state-level efforts during a separate panel at the summit. Feltes pointed to a bill meant to prevent towns from banning “accessory dwelling units” — residential units attached to an existing single-family home — as one way to expand housing options for the elderly, caregivers and young professionals. The law would allow some flexibility for communities in terms of establishing rules around these units, Feltes said. But towns wouldn’t be able to prohibit them outright.

He also pointed to the state’s Affordable Housing Fund as an important resource to ensure access to housing for low-income residents.

According to a recent poll conducted by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center in connection with the group behind Friday’s housing summit, 88 percent of respondents said housing was at least a “minor” problem in the state — and, within that, 34 percent characterized it as a “very serious problem.” A majority of respondents also said it’s difficult to find affordable housing in the state and suggested that presidential candidates should place some focus on this issue.