Manchester considers first housing-friendly zoning changes to come from major zoning review

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Despite being the main metropolitan area in the state, the City of Manchester’s zoning ordinances are surprisingly hostile to the construction of new multifamily housing. As a review of the city’s zoning ordinances championed by former Mayor Joyce Craig continues, aldermen are considering three relatively small changes unanimously approved by the Planning Board and brought forward by new Mayor Jay Ruais. 

These proposed amendments to the city’s zoning ordinances would represent a small but important step in the long-term effort to make the city’s zoning rules more friendly to new housing development. 

“Specifically, these amendments would help to make the construction of a few types of housing easier in the city by reducing regulatory barriers and by speeding up the permitting process,” Jeff Belanger, director of Planning and Community Development, told aldermen at a recent public hearing. 

The first change would allow four-unit housing to be built on lots currently permitting three-unit housing.

“The ordinance today establishes minimum lot sizes for developing multifamily or townhouse buildings with three dwelling units and then requires additional lot area for each additional dwelling unit,” Belanger explained. “The proposed amendments would change the minimum number of units that could be built on a lot from three to four, meaning that there could be an additional dwelling unit built on the minimum size lot.”

But for these changes to have any meaningful effect, the amendments also address parking requirements, reducing the required number of parking spaces for multifamily housing from 1.5 spaces per unit to one space per unit. 

“The proposed amendments for housing units would not be at all effective really if we didn’t also make adjustments to parking requirements,” Belanger said. “Parking requirements can really limit housing construction because parking takes up land area and adds costs. That’s especially true when it comes to three-family and four-family dwelling units because of the current parking requirements in the zoning ordinance.” 

In zoning districts that require 1.5 parking spaces per unit, the result is that three-family buildings need to set aside five parking spaces and four-family buildings need six parking spaces. And having that fifth parking space triggers an additional regulatory burden. According to Belanger, lots with at least five parking spaces must have a landscaped buffer around them, which costs time, money, and land area. 

Dropping the required number of parking spaces to one per unit would allow four-unit housing to be built on what is now the minimum lot size for three-unit housing, as three-unit and four-unit buildings would only need three and four parking spaces, respectively, keeping them below the five-space threshold. 

The third change would eliminate the need for property owners to receive a conditional use permit from the city’s Planning Board before building accessory dwelling units (ADUs) on their property, bolstering a property owner’s right to build an ADU.

“The benefit of exempting ADUs from Planning Board review is that it makes them faster and cheaper to permit,” Belanger told the aldermen. “Planning Board review usually takes about a month for an ADU application and there are fees associated with it. Both the delay and the fees would be eliminated with this proposal.”

Removing this red tape would help accelerate the construction of ADUs in Manchester, increasing the supply of units in the city and putting more people in homes. 

Interestingly, the Manchester Planning Board unanimously supports all three amendments, though they would take power away from the Planning Board itself. That is a sure sign of how pressing the need is for these types of reforms in the city. 

According to the New Hampshire Zoning Atlas, Manchester permits two-family housing on 23% of its buildable land and three-family, four-family, and five+-family housing on 21% of its buildable land as of 2023. 

That puts Manchester behind seven other cities in the state with respect to duplexes and six other cities with respect to larger multifamilies. (See our breakdown from last year of Manchester’s hostility to duplexes and other multifamilies here.)

“Manchester’s proposed zoning amendment is a modest but meaningful change that will probably result in a few dozen more apartments being built in scattered locations,” said Jason Sorens, senior research fellow at the American Institute for Economic Research and the principal investigator of the zoning atlas. “The city could go even further, especially since some of the changes merely bring the zoning in line with existing densities, but this change would start to chip away at the housing shortage in the city without causing noticeable changes in density at the neighborhood scale.”

There’s more the city can do to free up the supply of housing, such as further rolling back parking minimums, addressing minimum lot sizes, streamlining the permitting process for all types of construction, and opening up more buildable land for duplexes, just to name a few. But these proposed changes before the city now would start the much-needed process of reducing development costs and protecting residents’ property rights. 

“The proposed zoning amendments are not going to fix every housing problem in the city, but they are intended to at least help get at the cause of the housing crisis, which is a lack of supply,” Belanger explained. “They are intended to reduce regulatory barriers to housing production, while respecting the character of neighborhoods.”

State lawmakers are considering a slate of housing bills that would effectively override many municipalities’ zoning codes. And while some view such actions as constituting threats to local control—which New Hampshire rightfully cherishes—inaction on the part of local governments to loosen their own regulations may leave the state with no other choice. 

That is, unless cities like Manchester act first on these kinds of zoning amendments.