Business Quarterly: Carol Ogilvie – Housing problem requires coordinated solution


For the Ledger-Transcript

Published: 04-25-2023 12:43 PM

Housing is in the news these days – specifically, the lack of it and the cost of what there is. This is not a new problem for New Hampshire, but certain factors have contributed to the current situation, including years of predominantly single-family home construction, loss of income during the pandemic and cost and availability of housing being dramatically impacted by in-migration during the pandemic.

According to those who study the issue, the problem has reached crisis mode. And the problem is not just for those who are unable to secure decent and appropriate housing; it is also affecting the ability of employers to attract employees due to the lack of and/or cost of housing. There are plenty of statistics that are easy to find: how many housing units are needed in the state to accommodate existing and future demand, average rents and mortgages compared to people’s ability to pay, why the existing housing stock is not meeting the needs of the current demographic, etc.

Because of the wealth of available data, I will not spend time on that; instead, I would like to simply offer some observations gleaned from my years as a land-use planner in New Hampshire.

Having read and/or worked on dozens of zoning ordinances over the years, I have found a few constant themes, such as:

■Single-family housing dominates, and much of that on large lots. Admittedly, our area remains largely rural, with most towns having no municipal water or sewer; this clearly affects the ability to provide a wide range of housing choices. Nevertheless, it is possible to support a well and septic system for a single-family, or even a two-family home, on less than two or three acres.

■The public perception of new housing, especially if it is not the single-family type. The term “multifamily housing” seems to conjure images of big families with lots of children. What follows is the inevitable concern over school taxes. In fact, most children in our area live in single-family homes and not in apartments.

■Confusion over “affordable” or “workforce” housing. These terms are often used interchangeably, although they are not the same. Affordable, according to federal guidelines, means a household should not be paying more than 30 percent of its income on housing, whether that be rent or mortgage, insurance and taxes. Paying more than that leaves households without sufficient means to fund other necessities.

It is important to note that this 30 percent benchmark applies to all households, those earning $30,000 a year or those earning $3 million a year.

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Workforce housing, on the other hand, has a very specific definition based on state statute, and includes an affordable (at 30 percent) component. To meet the definition, workforce housing must be affordable to renters or buyers with incomes that do not exceed a specific percentage of the median for the county or metropolitan area (also based on federal guidelines).

Solutions for our housing situation are not necessarily simple or easy, as they involve a range of factors including availability of municipal water and sewer, access to funding for construction and land-use regulations that permit a range of housing types. One thing that has become clear to me, however, is that town-by-town solutions are not working.

Lest anyone think I am suggesting statewide zoning legislation, I would like to point out that we already have three examples of that.

In 1983, the Legislature passed a law that prohibited municipalities from completely excluding manufactured housing. In 2008, the Legislature passed the Workforce Housing Law that requires all municipalities to provide “reasonable and realistic” opportunities for the development of such housing. In 2016, the Legislature passed the Accessory Dwelling Unit l (ADU) law that allows, by right, one attached ADU per single-family home in all districts that permit single-family dwellings.

In all cases, the state did not wait for every town to change their zoning; these laws were enacted to respond to statewide housing issues.

With a current statewide housing shortage of 23,000 units, and a predicted need of 90,000 units between now and 2040, zoning alone cannot solve this problem. We need a coordinated effort of all entities that are involved in housing production.

Carol Ogilvie has more than 30 years of experience in local, regional and state government, with a focus on town land-use planning. Her experience includes more than 10 years as Peterborough’s community development director. She currently serves as a subject adviser to Municipal Resources, Inc.