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Effective policy stems from education

Legislators need to be educated to be effective and there are plenty of people willing to help. Sometimes stakeholders want to make sure key legislators are knowledgeable about a single piece of legislation while at other times the education is more general about an organization or aspect of the economy.

Each day I am in Concord there are visitors who come to talk with me about issues important to them or those they represent. Last week the topics ranged from wind power and agri-tourism to expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.

I also benefited last week from a briefing on oral health by a group of dentists and a tour and attendance at a board meeting of the New Hampshire Housing Finance Authority in Bedford.

A few senators met with the dentists. They wanted us to know that oral health care in New Hampshire is in good shape. They reported that New Hampshire ranks fourth in adults who have visited a dentist in the last year (75.9 percent) versus the national average of 68.4 percent.

And based on census data, our state has the lowest percentage of residents without access to a dentist. At one percent, there are only 13,000 New Hampshire residents who face dentist shortages in their area while Delaware, New Mexico and most southern states have more than 20 percent of their populations facing dentist shortages.

The point the dentists were making is that New Hampshire ranks high on measurements of oral health care and that legislation, specifically Senate Bill 193, which would license dental therapists to provide certain dental services currently provided by dentists is not necessary.

I was unaware that many dental practices in the state have excess capacity called “open chair time,” a phrase new to me.

Advocates for SB 193 will point out that there are gaps in available dental services in parts of the state that need to be addressed. There will be much debate ahead on SB 193.

Housing policy and growth

Steve Ensign, known to many readers, is the recently retired longtime head of Lake Sunapee Bank. Since he was elected chair of the NH Housing Finance Authority nine member volunteer board a few months ago, he and I have talked about me spending some time at the NHHFA. That opportunity came last week.

The Housing Authority is a large business with $275 million of annual transactions and a $1 billion outstanding loan portfolio. Created by the legislature as an “instrumentality of the State,” not a state department or agency, it is a self-sustaining public benefit corporation. That means the state is not responsible for the authority’s debts.

The goal is to support and finance affordable and needed housing for New Hampshire residents. The authority acts as a public housing agency but does not oversee local housing authorities. It does similar work in areas of the state with no local agency. Claremont, for example, has its own housing authority.

Homebuyers with incomes averaging about $60,000 per year looking to buy a house at an average cost of $160,000 might turn NHHFA for a loan. That happens between 700 and 1,000 times per year as NHHFA helps families buy a home or rehabilitate a home they already own with loans they can afford.

The NHHFA also works with developers to finance multi-family dwelling projects for the rental market. Over the years, it has made loans to develop more than 14,000 units doing about 300 units each year with an annual value of $60 million. The importance of the NHHFA financing for multi-family dwellings is reflected in the fact that one-half of multi-family construction activity went through NHHFA last year.

The federal government counts on NHHFA to oversee about 15,000 housing units on behalf of various agencies as well as the direct tenant assistance program for most communities. The vouchers go directly to landlords of low income renters and the monthly amount paid is based upon the income of the renter. Or, rental assistance is provided on a project- by-project basis including two in Newport.

Following a briefing by Steve Ensign, Dean Christon, the NHHFA executive director, and Ben Frost, NHHFA director of public affairs, I sat in on a board meeting as the next wave of applications for loan support were approved by the board. There were several projects that were not approved in this round based upon strict scoring criteria about meeting housing needs in New Hampshire.

NHHFA tracks monthly housing activity in New Hampshire. Many of us depend on that data to help with our decision making. The good news: sales are improving slowly, sales through the first eight months of 2013 were up 14 percent above last year; in August, the median price of a home sold $222,250 was up nearly 9 percent over August, 2012; and, foreclosure deeds for the first eight months of 2013 were 26 percent below 2012 levels for the same time period.

When I left the NHHFA on Thursday morning I certainly knew more than I did before and have confidence in the work the board and organization is doing. And I was much more aware and appreciative of the importance of housing policy to New Hampshire’s economic stability and future growth.

Bob Odell, a Republican, is the New Hampshire senator representing Antrim, Bennington and Francestown, among other towns.

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