Housing is having a moment

New Hampshire’s severe housing shortage was decades in the making. Like a boa constrictor squeezing its prey, local governments gradually tightened zoning restrictions to the point that they began choking off the lifeblood of communities.

A shrinking supply of new homes and apartments has contributed to the state’s slowing population growth rates and dwindling school populations. And it has driven housing prices to record highs.

From 2011-2021, the median home price in New Hampshire rose by 96% (NH Association of Realtors). From 2016-2021, the median rent for a two-bedroom apartment rose 24%.

As this was happening, housing policy remained largely the domain of our fellow policy wonks such as the New Hampshire Housing Finance Authority and the New Hampshire Association of Realtors. Like them, the Josiah Bartlett Center has written about the growing mismatch between housing supply and demand for years. 

As we head into 2022, it’s clear that this has changed. This month, the housing crisis had a cultural breakthrough at long last. It is one of the biggest topics of conversation in New Hampshire. 

Housing is officially having “a moment.”

  • Polls from the UNH Survey Center have shown housing to rank among the top three issues with New Hampshire voters for two years in a row.
  • Though home prices and rents have been rising for decades, the rapid increases of the last two years have attracted the attention of journalists. The housing shortage now has easily identifiable middle-class victims, and that has generated a steady supply of human interest stories focusing on the economic hardships caused by the price spikes.
  • The Granite State News Collaborative’s “Invisible walls” investigative series into New Hampshire’s history of exclusionary zoning has been picked up by multiple media outlets throughout the state. Data journalist Johnny Bassett has shown how local zoning ordinances shaped communities in profound ways, creating hardships for lower-income families. 
  • Housing is such a hot topic of conversation that legislators are acting. Lawmakers have introduced more than a dozen bills this session to address housing issues. Those include proposals to restrict local zoning powers, allow short-term rentals, and create a separate housing court similar to the state’s family court. 
  • Leaders in municipalities that had long been considered hostile to new development — such as Portsmouth, Nashua and Manchester — have begun touting how many new housing units their communities have approved in recent years. 
  • The ultimate sign that housing has moved from the policy wonk backwaters to the mainstream of political discourse was Gov. Chris Sununu’s announcement last week of his InvestNH Housing Incentive Fund. Smart governors don’t waste valuable State of the State time on issues they view as politically unpopular. That the governor is committing $100 million in American Rescue Plan funds to address the housing shortage, and unveiled it in a major political announcement, indicates that the state’s most popular politician considers fixing the housing shortage to be a winning issue politically. 

At the start of 2022, the housing shortage is becoming widely recognized as New Hampshire’s most important economic policy issue. Not long ago, calling the inadequate housing supply the single greatest impediment to New Hampshire’s future economic growth would draw quizzical looks. (We speak from experience.) Now, that statement draws a lot of nods.  

We don’t expect that 2022 will be the year New Hampshire solves this problem. It will take years, even decades, to build the tens of thousands of additional housing units New Hampshire needs. But it does appear to be the year that a critical mass of Granite Staters made the connection between excessive land use regulations and the housing shortage. 

This was always the first necessary step on the way to fixing the problem. We seem to have taken it at last.