A look at the region's affordable housing

Last modified: Thursday, July 16, 2015
Lisa Brooks walked away from an abusive relationship about two years ago, leaving an upper-middle-class lifestyle behind as well. Ever since then, Brooks, who lives on $800 a month from her supplemental Social Security income, has moved from friends’ couches to transitional shelters, because she can’t afford her own apartment.

“Had I known the housing was so bad, not just in this area, but everywhere, I probably would have stayed in the relationship,” said Brooks, two days before she moved from an eight-month shelter in Jaffrey to a shelter in Manchester, where she can remain in for three years. “I did not know it was this bad.” Brooks suffers from a connective tissue disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Owen and Norma Houghton moved from their Timberpeg home on a 5-acre property to a condo about a year ago, after Norma was diagnosed with dementia. The Houghtons were forced to downsize to a simpler lifestyle, but lost money when they sold their home because it lost equity during the recession.

Brooks and the Houghtons’ challenges aren’t unique. Affordable housing for low- to moderate-income households and senior citizens are few and far between in the Monadnock region, because smaller or multifamily houses are scarce.

Affordable housing has been a subject of debate in New Hampshire for several decades. The N.H. Supreme Court ruled in 1991 that the town of Winchester’s zoning ordinance discriminated against building multifamily homes, since it required they be built only in a planned residential development. The Legislature recognized the state lacked affordable housing and, in 2008, it passed the Workforce Housing Law that requires all municipalities provide “reasonable and realistic opportunities” for the development of housing that is affordable for families earning low to moderate incomes. Businesses, in particular, lobbied the Legislature to adopt this law, since they recognized high housing costs hurt their ability to hire and keep a skilled labor force.

The 2008 Workforce Housing Law led dozens of municipalities to amend their zoning ordinances to encourage the building of more affordable housing, yet much of the Monadnock region continues to suffer from a dearth of options.

Town planners have tried to alleviate the problem by supporting developments of low-cost housing. Dublin’s Planning Board is encouraging accessory apartments be built, while Francestown is evaluating how it can change its zoning ordinance to spur the development of more affordable housing. Meanwhile, there have been plenty of homes for sale; they’ve just been pricier than most buyers can afford.

Affordable homes and apartments

Homes continue to be out of reach for buyers and renters in the Monadnock region, as housing prices continue to outpace incomes.

“That’s no one’s fault,” said Keith Thibault, chief development officer of Southwest Community Services. “It’s just the reality of the things that have evolved in New Hampshire.”

The recession widened the gap between what the public can afford and the price of rentals and homes, said Thibault.

Unlike other parts of the country, where home values declined dramatically, the price of homes in New Hampshire and the Monadnock region remained stable through the recession. In 2007, the average price of a home was just under $250,000 in the state, according to the New Hampshire Housing Finance Authority. Since then, that price has declined to $219,000.

But, as home prices remained high, wages stagnated. According to the American Community Survey, the median household income in Hillsborough County was $69,321 in 2010, and $69,829 in 2013. In Cheshire County, the median household income was $53,828 in 2010, and $55,155 in 2013.

Thibault has found that a majority of the homes in the Monadnock region are beyond the reach of those earning median incomes.

Thibault attributed the stability of home prices to many New Hampshire homes being second homes.

Housing experts also predict there will be a growing mismatch between the houses available — multi-level, New England homes — with the needs of the aging population.

That was the case for the Houghtons, whose cabin was just too large for them, especially given the challenges of dementia Norma is facing. Owen, who is an aging wellness educator and member of Monadnock at Home — an organization whose aim is to enable the elderly to stay in their homes as they age — said a lot of seniors are downsizing. But, the homes they are interested in buying also happen to be the homes Millennials are interested in.

Larry Alvarez of Tieger Realty in Jaffrey is seeing a lot of buyers looking to buy their first homes only able to afford “fixer-uppers” — homes that need too much work to be affordable.

“The most affordable houses that are out there are the ones that need the most work,” said Alvarez.

The same is true for monthly gross rent. The price of renting a two-bedroom with utilities included rose in both Hillsborough and Cheshire Counties, according to the Housing Finance Authority. In Hillsborough County, a two-bedroom cost $1,219 this past April, compared to $1,058 in the same month in 2007. In Cheshire County, the price of a two-bedroom rental rose from $976 in 2007 to $1,069. Hillsborough has the second highest rent in the state under Rockingham County’s $1,270.

“People will have a job making $10 or $11 an hour. [But] when they apply for apartments, [landlords] say they just don’t make enough,” said Susan Howard, case manager for the Peterborough-based Monadnock Area Transitional Shelter, which serves those who are homeless. “In the Monadnock region, you have to be earning $22 an hour.”

Encouraging more development

As unaffordable housing continues to plague the region, planners are exploring ways to improve the predicament in their towns. Yet, some of the smaller towns are more ahead than others.

Dublin, in the last several years, has loosened their planning and zoning regulations to encourage the development of more affordable housing. One amendment Planning Board Chair Bruce Simpson said the town approved was allowing developers to build double the density for affordable housing than they could otherwise. The board also relaxed its lot size, frontage and road standards, all regulations that typically drive up the cost of housing.

Another amendment the board enacted, explained Simpson, is allowing accessory apartments to be larger. Prior to the amendment, an accessory apartment could only be one-fourth the size of a home. Now, it can be up to half the size of the home. Simpson said he has found many of the homes in Dublin are older, rural homes, much like the Houghtons’ previous home in Jaffrey. Revising the zoning ordinance is meant to encourage senior citizens and other smaller families living in multi-bedroom homes to add on accessory apartments .

However, Simpson doesn’t think Dublin has done enough to encourage a move away from these bigger, country homes.

“In Dublin, like small towns, property prices are higher. There is less direct access to jobs and services. I don’t think it’s attractive for developers to build affordable housing,” he said. “It might be in a place with more of a population and more jobs. Property prices a lower.”

Simpson said the town could relax its ordinance about accessory apartments even more to allow all properties to have them.

In Francestown, their zoning regulations don’t allow for any multi-family housing, explained Planning Board Chair Larry Ames.

“It’s hard for young people to stay in town, without staying at their parent’s house,” said Ames.

As the town looks to update its Master Plan, Ames said elected officials are wrestling with how to make their town more attractive for low- to moderate-income earners.

“We’re trying to identify what type of development the town as a whole wants to see,” said Ames.

Meanwhile, Rich Cahoon, a member of the ConVal School Board, would like towns to consider how their zoning regulations impact school districts’ populations. Cahoon said zoning regulations that require lot sizes be larger are often unaffordable for young families.

“Not a lot of 27-year-olds are going to buy it and put a house on it,” said Cahoon. “I told people who are concerned about small elementary schools, your most important vote is not for your School Board, but for your Planning Board.”

As the region continues to grapple with unaffordable housing, and how it affects school districts and employment opportunities, Brooks is moving away, while the Houghtons are getting by in a smaller house.