On housing, New Hampshire’s No. 1 issue, 2024 offers few big reforms

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With a growing housing shortage and skyrocketing home prices as a result, the issue of housing is top of mind for Granite Staters. A June UNH Survey Center poll found that Granite Staters overwhelmingly say housing is the most important problem facing the state.

Unsurprisingly, the issue was also a top priority for legislators in 2024. And although some of the more ambitious pro-housing proposals didn’t make it through both houses, the Legislature passed a handful of modest reforms to free up the housing stock in New Hampshire.

The following are the five bills that passed both the House and the Senate and either await Gov. Sununu’s signature or have already received it:

* House Bill 1065: “relative to fire sprinkler requirements in residential buildings.”

* House Bill 1202: “relative to the issuance of permits for the alteration of driveways exiting onto public ways and relative to the definition of disability or special needs under the child care scholarship program.”

* House Bill 1359: “relative to appeals of certain zoning decisions by abutters.”

* House Bill 1361 (signed into law): “relative to municipal land use regulation for manufactured housing and subdivisions.”

* House Bill 1400: “relative to residential parking spaces, landlord-tenant law, unauthorized occupant evictions, and zoning procedures concerning residential housing.”

HB 1065 adds an exception to the state fire code for certain multifamily buildings. Under current law, existing multifamily structures consisting of more than two dwelling units must have a fire suppression or sprinkler system installed on the property. HB 1065 exempts existing buildings of no more than four dwelling units from this requirement unless fire sprinklers already exist on the property or are required by a nonresidential occupancy.

HB 1065 also prevents local jurisdictions from imposing stricter rules and regulations than the state fire code relative to residential sprinkler systems.

Requiring three-family and four-family buildings to have fire suppression or sprinkler systems can disincentivize developers and property owners from converting two-family buildings to four-families because of the prohibitive costs of installing them.

HB 1202 streamlines local permitting of driveways. Under this bill, a municipality must issue a driveway permit for a proposed driveway on residential land, including for multifamily use, within 60 days of the property owner’s application, putting an end to drawn-out permitting processes and preventing municipalities from wasting property owners’ time with delays.

HB 1359 limits who exactly can appeal local land-use board decisions by adding to the definition of “abutter.” Vexatious appeals of local zoning boards’ land-use decisions hinder residential development. Under current law, “any person whose property is located in New Hampshire and adjoins or is directly across the street or stream from the land under consideration by the local land use board” can appeal the permitted use in question to the local zoning board.

Under HB 1359, an abutter is “any person whose property is located in New Hampshire and adjoins or is directly across the street or stream from the land under consideration by the local land use board. ‘Directly across the street or stream’ shall be determined by lines drawn perpendicular from all pairs of corner boundaries along the street or stream of the applicant to pairs of projected points on any property boundary across the street or stream that intersect these perpendicular lines. Any property that lies along the street or stream between each pair of projected points, or is within 50 feet of any projected point shall be considered an abutter.”

In other words, not just anyone can claim to be an abutter and therefore appeal their local zoning board’s land-use decisions. Someone must be close enough to the land under consideration, and therefore have a claim to be materially affected by the permitted use, to have a right to appeal.

HB 1400, focusing on parking space requirements and unauthorized occupancies, was one of the more high-profile housing bills of the year. Originally, the bill prevented municipalities from requiring more than one residential parking space per housing unit. Under the version passed by both chambers, the bill prevents municipalities from requiring more than 1.5 spaces per unit for studio and one-bedroom apartments under 1,000 square feet, as well as for multifamily structures of 10 units or more.

Local parking requirements are often burdensome for housing developers and owners of multifamily properties to overcome because of all the land that needs to be accounted for and set aside to accommodate them. While 1.5 is not as ambitious as one, and owners of multifamily structures consisting of two to nine units will still have to abide by the whims local governments requiring two or sometimes more parking spaces per unit, 1.5 at least gives owners and developers of large housing complexes the breathing room to build without worrying about overcoming overly stringent parking edicts.

HB 1400 also allows municipalities to grant community revitalization tax relief for properties that are converted from office, commercial or industrial use to residential. This would let municipalities temporarily freeze property taxes on a building that is converted to residential use, thereby encouraging owners to make those conversions.

Sometimes local boards recommend changes to land-use regulations that would facilitate more housing development, only to see those changes rejected by voters. HB 1400 offers a remedy for this too. It would allow non-charter towns, village districts and counties that have unincorporated land to ask voters for permission to let the local governing body approve zoning changes without submitting the proposed changes to voters. If approved by voters, the local governing body would be able to change zoning laws or maps by majority vote.

Finally, after an amendment added by the Senate, HB 1400 outlaws squatting in New Hampshire. A “squatter” is someone who lives on another person’s property without that owner’s permission and without any legal claim or title to that property.

With the following language, “No person or legal entity, that is not a tenant, subtenant, or implied tenant, as defined in RSA 540-A:1, II, shall occupy residential real estate without permission of the owner, landlord, or their agent,” claims of “squatter’s rights” will have no legal basis in the Granite State under HB 1400, restoring to property owners the right to control who occupies their private property.

HB 1361, which has already been signed into law, forbids municipalities from banning manufactured housing. Prefabricated homes that are transported to sites, manufactured housing 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.

Each of these five bills, through exemptions, increased freedom, and/or regulatory reform, enhances property rights, reduces barriers to development, and makes it easier for Granite Staters to build more housing.

“The Legislature did a number of small things to ease the housing shortage, all of which had to do with giving people a little bit more freedom to use their land,” Jason Sorens, senior research fellow at the American Institute for Economic Research, said. “The most impactful reform might be letting residential developers propose alternative parking plans if the minimum requirement can be met through transit, on-street parking, or other options. But the session was also a missed opportunity in that the Senate killed more significant parking reform and by-right ADUs. Next year, they will need to get back to work on the problem.”

Among the more ambitious pro-housing bills that didn’t make it to the governor’s desk were HB 1215, HB 1291 and HB 1399. These bills represented attempts to extend the amount of time new developments are protected from local regulatory changes, allow property owners to add an additional accessory dwelling unit by right, and limit municipal restrictions on homeowners in urban residential zones who want to convert a single-family home to a duplex.

While these more far-reaching reforms didn’t make it through the Legislature, those that did represent an important first step in expanding private property rights throughout New Hampshire and reducing regulatory roadblocks to housing development.

Granite Staters want more housing, and they want enough of it to drive prices down. Whether they want it faster than legislators and local regulators have been willing to provide it is a question that might be answered only by future elections.