Housing bills seek to restore some limited property rights while maintaining local control

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There’s a growing consensus that New Hampshire’s overly restrictive land-use regulations need to be addressed to reverse the state’s housing shortage. Whether changes should be made at the state or local level, though, remains a major point of contention.

State-level solutions generate reflexive opposition from people who view local land-use regulation as an entirely local issue. Yet some of this opposition, maybe most, is based on an important misconception.

Opponents of state action commonly assert that bills to address the housing shortage are an effort by legislators to take for themselves powers that belong at the local level. This is mistaken. 

Decisions about land use will continue to be made locally. Under many of the bills working their way through the Legislature this session, those decisions will be made by individuals at the local level rather than by local governments—boards and bureaucrats—or voters.

Changes in Manchester

Realizing the desperate need for housing, some local governments are changing their ordinances to allow more development. In Manchester, for example, several proposed amendments to the city’s zoning ordinance would represent small but important steps to relax land-use regulations in the Queen City. 

The amendments would permit four-unit housing to be built on lots currently zoned for three-unit housing, drop the required number of parking spaces for multifamily housing from 1.5 spaces per unit to one space per unit, and no longer require property owners to petition the city’s planning board for a conditional use permit before building accessory dwelling units (ADUs).

These steps are the beginning of a bigger set of reforms being studied in the city. Not every municipality is moving in this direction, though, prompting state lawmakers to intervene in limited but meaningful ways. 

But these interventions don’t amount to the creation of statewide zoning. They just return some decision-making authority to property owners, from whom it was taken in the first place.

Legislation to restore limited rights to property owners

Consider the following bills: allowing one ADU, attached or detached, by right and allowing up to two per lot under certain conditions (HB 1291), forbidding municipalities from banning manufactured housing (HB 1361), allowing the expansion of a single-family residence within an urban residential zone to no more than two residential units without review if it meets certain requirements (HB 1399), and preventing local zoning regulations from requiring more than one residential parking space per unit (HB 1400).

Yes, these would be state laws, albeit modest ones. No, they would not amount to a uniform state zoning code. They would restore some limited rights to property owners while retaining local authority to regulate in each of these areas.

Currently, if a property owner wants to add a second ADU or convert a single-family home into a duplex within an urban residential zoning district—even if the developments wouldn’t encroach on neighboring property, disturb anyone, or change the outward appearance of the property whatsoever—local ordinances can prohibit them from doing so. 

Contrary to popular belief, local governments do not hold that power by right. The power to regulate private property is, under New Hampshire’s Constitution, granted to local governments by the state. 

With each of the bills above, lawmakers are not proposing to impose a single uniform ordinance statewide. They are proposing to reduce the regulation of property in these very limited areas altogether, thus restoring a small measure of rights originally held by property owners. 

Manufactured housing—prefabricated homes that are transported to sites—is an easy, quick, and often inexpensive way to put more people into homes. Under HB 1361, municipalities can still regulate manufactured housing but not to the extent that it is effectively banned. 

Parking space requirements are a pernicious roadblock to creating more multifamily housing. In zoning districts that require 1.5 parking spaces per housing unit, that means every duplex, three-family, and four-family building needs enough land set aside for three, 4.5, and six spaces, respectively. Where municipalities require two parking spaces per housing unit, that means every duplex, three-family, and four-family building must have four, six, and eight spaces, respectively. 

Often these stringent requirements keep a lot of multifamily housing from being created, either through development or single-family expansions. By preventing local governments from requiring more than one space per residential unit, HB 1400 would restore to property owners the authority to decide whether a unit needs more than one parking space on site. 

Because these kinds of state proposals would supersede local ordinances, they rub some the wrong way. Local control has long been a very important principle in New Hampshire.

The state’s historical adherence to local control, however, shouldn’t justify unlimited local control. Local governments are still governments, and as a result, their ordinances can be fundamentally oppressive.  

At the same time, we shouldn’t always assume that the state government overruling some local ordinances automatically represents state overreach. In the case of these four bills, such actions seek to pull back the centralized planning powers of local governments and protect Granite Staters’ property rights. 

Isn’t that what governments are instituted to do, to secure our rights? If so, then private property rights are chief among them.

When you consider that these state laws would be superseding some of the most overly restrictive local regulations that limit property rights throughout the state, and that state lawmakers have only resorted to these very modest steps because of inaction on the part of municipalities, then such proposals look less like top-down state government control and more like state government doing the bare minimum to protect Granite Staters’ property rights and address the state’s housing shortage.