New Hampshire voters rank affordable housing as the state’s No. 1 problem, according to a UNH Survey Center poll released on August 28. State business and political leaders agree, saying housing affordability is the top problem holding back the state’s economy. 

“Oh, it’s number one,” Gov. Chris Sununu told Drew Cline, president of The Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy, on the WFEA Morning Update. “The lack of housing for middle and lower-income families is absolutely number one because…. Without the housing, you don’t have the employees. Without the employees, the businesses can’t grow. If the businesses can’t grow, then economically everything becomes stagnation.”

In June 2023, housing affordability in the state reached a new record low for the second consecutive month, according to the New Hampshire Association of Realtors. With an affordability index of 61, the state’s median household income was only 61% of what’s necessary to qualify for the median-priced single-family home at current interest rates.

At the same time, median prices for single-family homes in New Hampshire hit their highest point ever at $495,000—an increase of $30,000 from the previous month’s record high. Condos notched a record median price of $400,000 in June too. 

Rents are also hitting new heights. The median cost of a two-bedroom apartment soared 11.4% over the past year alone to $1,764 a month.

Despite New Hampshire’s growing economy—ranked fourth overall, third in economic growth, first in economic opportunity, and last in poverty rate by U.S. News & World Report—the state is 36th in housing affordability.

“I would rate housing affordability number one currently among issues or challenges impacting New Hampshire’s economy,” Michael Skelton, president and CEO of the Business & Industry Association (BIA), told The Josiah Bartlett Center.

“It’s unquestionably the single most important problem facing New Hampshire’s economy,” said Jason Sorens, senior research faculty at the American Institute for Economic Research and author of The Josiah Bartlett Center’s landmark 2021 study linking local land-use regulations to the state’s housing shortage. 

Several leaders also agree that land-use regulations are a leading cause of the issue. 

“Most of the affordability problem is due to local land-use regulations,” Bob Quinn, CEO of the New Hampshire Association of Realtors, concluded. “They increase development costs or eliminate the opportunity to build entirely.”

“Local land-use regulations are certainly part of the issue, on par with NIMBYISM [Not-In-My-Backyard-ism],” Keene Mayor George Hansel said.

It comes down to a problem of supply and demand: Limited supply of housing with steady or increasing demand leads to an increase in prices. By restricting what can be built and where, zoning laws are suppressing the supply of housing, resulting in New Hampshire’s current housing shortage, state housing experts and business leaders say.

“There is simply not enough housing for people to rent in New Hampshire,” Ben Frost, deputy executive director of New Hampshire Housing, said on WMUR.

According to the CATO Institute’s Freedom in the 50 States—an index of personal and economic freedom—New Hampshire ranks 40th in land-use freedom, a product of local land-use regulations obstructing supply.  

These zoning regulations include minimum lot size, setback, frontage, minimum square footage, and design requirements, among others—all of which make it difficult to build and/or increase the costs of building.  

“We know developers are interested in building more housing and there are generally financing options and capital available to do so, [but] the challenge they most often face is finding a place to build,” BIA’s Skelton observed. “Local land-use regulations and zoning (minimum lot size being the most prominent) and infrastructure (water/sewer, etc.) availability and requirements, to me, are the most significant local regulatory issues impacting what can be built and where.”

As the New Hampshire Zoning Atlas demonstrates, single-family housing is allowed by right on 90% of the state’s 3.6 million acres of buildable land, yet most municipalities don’t allow single-family homes on small lots (less than one acre). 

In fact, homes on lots of less than one acre are permitted on only 16% of the state’s buildable land. 

The median lot in New Hampshire is 49,223 square feet, according to the Angi U.S. Lot Size Index. This is the second-highest in the country. 

In New Hampshire, minimum lot size requirements can exceed dozens of acres. Districts in Groton, New Boston, Peterborough, and New London require lots to be a minimum of 25 acres (1.089 million square feet).

Zooming in on the Greater Manchester Area, 89% of the buildable land in the city and surrounding towns (Auburn, Bedford, Goffstown, Hooksett, Litchfield, Londonderry, and Merrimack) allows single-family housing, but only 33% of that buildable area is open to new single-family homes (after accounting for existing development, vacancies, and growth potential). 

Just 21% of Greater Manchester’s buildable land allows single-family homes on small lots. This drops to merely 7.8% when considering only vacant or underdeveloped space.

“It’s not the only factor, but it’s the predominant factor, and it’s easily the most important factor we can actually do something about,” Jason Sorens, the principal investigator on the New Hampshire Zoning Atlas, noted about local zoning laws. 

“We can’t do much about steep slopes and poor soils, and expanding sewer and water service takes time and expense. Growing the construction workforce is another lever, but that will take a long time. Local land-use regulations drive at least 50% of the affordability problem, and we can change them,” Sorens added.

Multifamily development is heavily restricted as well. While housing for five or more families is permitted on 44.2% of New Hampshire’s buildable area, only 21% of this land allows these large-family developments on smaller lots.

Reforming a city’s zoning regime can be quite an undertaking. “Keene has dramatically streamlined and rewritten our land-use codes in the last three years,” Mayor Hansel said. “This was an expensive effort, costing more than $500,000 on top of internal staff time devoted to the rewrite effort. Smaller communities, without full-time planning staff, would have a hard time tackling something like that.”

Though some communities might want to avoid a full rewrite, smaller changes such as reducing minimum lot sizes, eliminating overlay districts (zoning districts that overlap original zoning districts), and increasing density limits (how many housing units can be built in a given area) would have significant impact.

Mayor Paul Callaghan offers Rochester as a model for other municipalities looking to make quick progress on this front. 

“In 2018 we increased the density allowance in and around our three urban centers (East Rochester, Downton Rochester, and Gonic) to allow for more density (and therefore less cost to developers),” Mayor Callaghan said. “And then in 2019 we did away with density requirements altogether in Downtown Rochester and allowed for some residential units on the ground floor level.”

“The system really works when it’s clicking, and the number one thing holding it all back…is housing,” Gov. Sununu told Cline. “And it isn’t, ‘Well, the government needs to build more housing.’ We’re investing more in housing than we ever have.” 

In fact, the 2024–25 state budget spends a record $25 million for the affordable housing fund. 

“But the locals need to permit it,” the governor continued. “Local, even small towns, need to talk to their businesses who are struggling to find employees and say, ‘Maybe if we just put five units up here or we let a small multifamily complex with seven, ten units go over here,’ that in itself can just be a game changer for a lot of small businesses in town to make them more economically viable.”

Capturing the full economic extent of the challenge, the governor added, “Everything moves positively when you have the housing and you can bring in the employees.”

 

Large majorities of Granite Staters support changing local land use regulations to allow the construction of more housing, the latest annual affordable housing survey from the Center for Ethics in Society at St. Anselm College reveals.

Support for more housing options has surged in the last year as home prices and rents have hit new records in New Hampshire. But despite huge and unprecedented levels of support for relaxing local regulations, news stories show that local boards continue to block new housing proposals when small groups of local residents turn out to oppose them.

In our hyper-partisan era, it’s unusual to get anywhere near 80% public support on an issue. Yet in New Hampshire, 78% of registered voters now agree that “my community needs more affordable housing to be built.” Only 18% disagreed. That 60-point gap was a 40-point gap last year. 

Opposition to housing construction often comes from older voters who don’t want to see their communities change—and who already have homes. Younger people who face the prospects of huge rents and few available starter homes tend to take a more permissive view of new housing construction. The effect of high rents and home prices on younger voters was shown in the results of this new poll. In the survey, “not a single voter under 35 disagreed with the ‘more affordable housing in my community’ position,” according to the Center for Ethics in Society. 

Voters have grown more receptive even to the idea that affordable housing should be built in their own neighborhood. The survey found that 58% of voters agreed that “My neighborhood needs more affordable housing to be built.” Support grew threefold in one year, from +7 in 2022 to +21 in 2023.

Significantly, voters have come to link the state’s severe housing shortage to local planning and zoning regulations. The survey found that 60% of voters agreed that “New Hampshire towns and cities should change their planning and zoning regulations in order to allow more housing to be built.” That 26-point gap was just a 12-point gap last year.

 

When the Josiah Bartlett Center asked voters in our 2021 poll whether they “support relaxing some local regulations to make it easier to build homes for people who need them,” 45% said yes and 34% said no. The growth over just two years in support for relaxing local land use regulations is remarkable. 

Highly restrictive local land use regulations became pervasive throughout New Hampshire because they once had broad support. The damage they’ve done to the state’s housing market has become so obvious that support for anti-housing positions is collapsing.

The Center for Ethics in Society asked voters if “New Hampshire should do more to prevent housing development and keep the state the way it is.” Only 45% of New Hampshire voters disagreed with that statement in the 2020 survey. (Support was at 31%, with the rest undecided.) In this year’s survey, 59% of voters disagreed, representing a 14-point swing since 2020. 

At the Josiah Bartlett Center, we’ve warned for years that if local governments continue to choke the housing supply by maintaining overly restrictive land use regulations, support for blanket state laws to override those regulations will grow. Sure enough, that is happening. 

In 2021, 37% of voters supported and 38% opposed “a bill to allow property owners to build duplexes, triplexes, and fourplexes on any property served by municipal water and sewer, and where the zoning allows residential development.” Opposition to such a law has fallen nine points to 27%, and support has risen to 43%. 

In the Legislature, opposition to such legislation is driven by a perception that voters back home disapprove. But that disapproval is eroding. If local governments don’t swiftly change course and begin allowing more housing, legislators will be pushed by voters to offer a state solution.

Manchester has made strong gains, approving approximately 2,000 new units’ worth of new construction in recent years, according to city officials. But projects still run into road blocks there, and in many other municipalities local boards routinely thwart new construction as a matter of course. 

A few recent examples:

  • Portsmouth’s Zoning Board of Adjustment voted against a plan to convert an abandoned animal hospital into 16 housing units. 
  • Swanzey’s Zoning Board of Adjustment voted against a proposal for an 18-unit residential development. 
  • Seabrook’s Zoning Board voted against a 332-unit luxury apartment development at the former greyhound track. 
  • Brady-Sullivan continues a two-year fight to convert old office building to apartments. 

A sentiment often heard at local planning and zoning board meetings is that multi-family housing belongs in cities like Manchester, not in smaller communities. But most voters disagree with that, and the disagreement is growing stronger.

This year’s survey found that 64% of voters disagreed with the statement, “Our suburbs and rural towns should have mostly just single-family homes. Apartments, duplexes, and townhouses should be built only in cities.” That’s up from 61% two years ago. 

After years of surging housing costs—and a concerted effort by reformers (including the Josiah Bartlett Center) to highlight the role local regulations play in driving those costs higher—overwhelming majorities of Granite Staters now support relaxing local land use regulations.

It’s now up to voters and boards to take up this cause at the local level. If they don’t, it’s only a matter of time before legislators pass state laws to free developers and property owners from the local regulations that prevent the market from supplying people with the homes they want and need.   

Jason Sorens at the American Institute for Economic Research has posted a provocative essay connecting young people’s affinity for heavy-handed government economic intervention to overly restrictive land use regulations.

Restrictive land use regulations play a significant role in driving housing costs higher. That’s very well documented.

Government zoning regulations that limit homebuilding are a big factor in housing costs over the long run. A lot of research has shown this, but so does common sense. Look at the populations of Boston, Houston, Miami, and San Francisco over time. Between 2010 and 2020, Boston’s county (Suffolk) grew 2 percent, Houston’s county (Harris) grew 16 percent, Miami-Dade grew 7 percent, and San Francisco County grew 8 percent. Clearly, San Francisco’s huge expense is not solely a result of hot demand; otherwise, its population growth rates would be much higher than those of the others. Boston also looks pretty bad when you compare rents to population growth, while Houston looks amazing. It has accommodated rapid growth at moderate rents.

What’s less well known is that persistently high housing costs, caused by a long-term supply shortage, price younger adults out of the housing market, and in their frustration they demand government remedies. The longer the shortage persists, the more extreme their proposed remedies become.

Right now, left-of-center states and localities are experimenting with rent control and public housing, would-be solutions to the problem of rising rents that economists know are incredibly costly. Simply reforming zoning would be a better solution.

Not only do artificial restrictions on the housing supply turn people toward radical economic interventions, but they also tend to make communities more left-leaning over time.

A standard-deviation increase in housing regulation makes a place shift toward the Democrats about three percentage points over the next eight years, because noncollege voters, who are becoming the Republican base, move out.

“But won’t building apartment high-rises bring in more Democrats than Republicans?” I often hear. Yes, usually, but by increasing housing supply these high rises will make single-family homes cheaper in the suburbs, keeping blue-collar families from moving to Texas or Florida. And building tract subdivisions in the suburbs directly helps blue-collar families stay put.

Many Democrats and progressives are at least somewhat free-market on housing, because they want to keep rents down. That’s admirable. On the other hand, democratic socialist types insist on harmful “solutions” like rent control and public housing. Republicans and conservatives have largely sat on the sidelines of zoning reform so far. But the data strongly suggest that to fight the radical left, we need to build more homes.

A lot of Republicans and conservatives believe that strict zoning is a way to protect their communities politically right-of-center. The opposite tends to be true. It makes them more left-of-center over time and causes people, particularly the young, to seek more government economic interventions.

 

 

The Portsmouth Planning Board did something remarkable last week. It ever so slightly loosened its iron grip on a small portion of the city’s iconic downtown. And in the loosening, a lesson fell out. 

Local investors want to create at 238 Deer St. a mixed-use building with 21 micro apartments. These units would be no more than 500 square feet and would have no on-site parking. 

Though the location is a short walk from the city’s $26 million Foundry Place parking garage—built specifically to facilitate additional commercial activity downtown—the developers needed permission from the Planning Board, in the form of a Conditional Use Permit (CUP), to build those tiny apartments without on-site parking spaces.

A dispute over the need for private parking dragged on for two years, and last week the board voted, despite some member misgivings, to grant the CUP. 

That’s a huge decision, for many reasons. Among them, it separates housing from parking not just for this project but possibly for others in the future. Planning boards typically insist on maintaining minimum parking requirements that raise housing costs and occupy real estate that could be turned to more productive uses. 

It also allows tiny apartments to fill a huge market need in Portsmouth, where astronomical housing prices are driving away lower-and middle-income people.

During the board meeting, members kept asking about the rental price of the apartments. The developer’s attorney at one point answered, “…it’s going to be market rate, it’s not going to be affordable, that’s really all we can tell you at this point.”

This comment might not sound off to a lot of people, but it would be a strange thing to say about most products.

Why should there be a difference between “market rate” and “affordable?”

We don’t think of most other consumer goods in these terms. 

No one says, “the bananas are going to be market rate, not affordable,” or “are you pricing those chainsaws at market rate, or are they ‘affordable?’”

Sure, we browse clearance racks, wait for sales, clip coupons, buy generics or store brands, ransack the corner drugstore in protest of systemic oppression. (OK, maybe you do only some of these things.) But for most consumer goods, we don’t conceive of there being a market price and a separate “affordable” price. 

That’s because the market, if allowed to, will provide a gazillion options of most products at a wide range of prices.

If you need toilet paper, the market offers everything from wafer-thin sandpaper to quilted, pillow-soft rolls that smell like a flowering Alpine meadow in spring. 

If you need a car, you can pick up a no-frills Nissan Versa (MSRP: $15,700) or save up a little longer and spring for the slightly flashier Bugatti Chiron Super Sport (MRSP: $3.4 million).

If you need a cell phone, you can get a Nokia flip phone for $19 (less than the price of a 12 piece KFC bucket) or a Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 4 for around $1,800.

Sure, housing prices have a range, too. But in housing, government regulations have literally outlawed the construction of many options at the lower end of the range. So builders can’t offer the lower-price fare that manufacturers are able to offer in most other industries. 

And so we talk of “market rate” housing and “affordable” housing. That’s not because the market doesn’t want to provide less-expensive options. It’s because governments don’t want the market to provide those options. 

As Mark Perry has demonstrated, markets tend to lower prices and improve quality unless government gets in the way. Industries in which government regulations have prevented robust competition (health care, education, housing, child care) have experienced steady price increases, while less regulated industries have experienced price declines. 

Remove the regulatory barriers, and the market will be happy to provide micro apartments, tiny homes, duplexes, in-law apartments, single-family homes on half-acre lots and any number of other less-expensive options for people who want them. 

Once the supply catches up with demand, “market rate” will become “affordable” in housing just as in most other markets.

In 2021, we published a landmark study that showed how local land use regulations drove New Hampshire’s housing shortage. That study changed the conversation on affordable housing in New Hampshire, from one focused on government subsidies to one focused on regulations. This week, the Center for Ethics in Society at Saint Anselm College set the next housing policy landmark when it released the New Hampshire Housing Atlas.

The New Hampshire Zoning Atlas is the most powerful tool Granite Staters have ever had for understanding local zoning ordinances. It catalogues—and maps—23,000 pages of zoning regulations in 2,139 districts in 269 jurisdictions. Never has this information been available in one place, much less open for public examination. 

In the atlas, users can quickly find the building and land use restrictions in one community, or search the state to see what restrictions are in effect across multiple communities. The search tool and maps reveal just how severely New Hampshire municipalities have restricted people’s housing options, and how much freer some towns are than others. 

The atlas shows that single-family homes are allowed by right on 90% of New Hampshire’s buildable land, and by public hearing on another 6%. Sounds good, right? 

A closer look, though reveals that single family homes on lots of less than one acre are illegal—yes, literally illegal—on most of that property. It is legal to build a home on less than one acre in only 16% of the state’s buildable land.

You might think of zoning as “allowing” certain types of property uses. In reality, zoning is a prohibition. It carves communities into areas in which most uses of private property are outlawed. Large minimum lot size requirements are the perfect example of a regulation that outlaws a once common housing preference. The result is a nearly statewide prohibition on the construction of affordable starter homes.  

People generally have no problem with municipalities using zoning to, say, keep industrial operations out of residential neighborhoods. The New Hampshire Zoning Atlas shows, however, that municipalities commonly use this power to outlaw small yards, duplexes, apartments and any mixing of commercial and residential activities. The maps show that it isn’t unusual for municipalities to take zoning restrictions to absurd extremes.

Lebanon’s rural lands 3 zone has a huge 10-acre minimum lot size for single-family homes, which we knew from previous research. But the atlas shows that Hanover isn’t alone. Meredith’s forest and conservation district also has a 10-acre minimum lot size. Marlowe’s rural lands district has a minimum lot size of 20 acres!

Neighboring towns can have huge discrepancies in the types of homes they allow. 

No portion of Bedford, Merrimack or New Boston has a minimum lot size of five acres or more. But significant portions of Mont Vernon and Amherst do. Two-family housing is allowed in most of Londonderry, but in only a small sliver of Derry. 

Though the New Hampshire Zoning Atlas is itself policy neutral (it’s just a presentation of data), it’s likely to lead to policy changes. It’s hard to justify zoning that allows rental housing of five units or more, but bans duplexes and triplexes, for example. This particular rule shows up in a surprising number of communities.

The atlas offers an invaluable tool for citizens who want to better understand how government regulations prevent the market from providing housing options that people want, even in times of sky-high demand.

When the Josiah Bartlett Center released our landmark study of the nexus between New Hampshire’s housing shortage and local land use regulations, in October of 2021, the connection between the two was not widely reported in the popular press. Academics, developers and planners knew that local regulations were responsible for reducing the supply of housing, but it was rarely mentioned in the media.

Not even two years later, and even media organizations that generally embrace government activism and progressive regulation of the economy are acknowledging that local land use regulations are at the root of the housing shortage here in New England.

The Boston Globe is out with a long editorial titled “A hundred years of choking housing growth catches up with Massachusetts.”

The conclusion: “Since the early 20th century, the Legislature has let individual municipalities thwart housing. Now the consequences threaten the Commonwealth’s future.”

The Globe pointed out that in 1920 Massachusetts legislators, acting on authority granted to them by a 1918 state constitutional amendment, authorized municipalities to regulate land use.

Municipalities “promptly started using their new authority to pass rules that suppressed housing growth and kept out poor people and renters.”

It didn’t take long for warning signs to start flashing about the impact of local obstructionism spawned by the zoning amendment. Just after World War II, the Globe reported that “zoning restrictions in many Greater Boston communities are hampering large rental projects” for returning veterans. In 1961, the Globe reported on complaints from builders that zoning rules made “more moderately priced housing ‘an impossibility to build.’ ” In 1971, a developer said, “until ways are found to force towns to change zoning codes … ‘we are not going to be able to lick the housing shortage in Massachusetts.’ ” A 1979 feature about housing in Braintree reported, “Because of zoning regulations and environmental restrictions … it is no longer financially feasible to build housing for the middle class in town.”

By and large, those warnings were ignored. Meanwhile, the gap between the cost of housing in Massachusetts and the cost of housing elsewhere kept widening. In 1940, according to the census, the median home value in Massachusetts was 1.3 times the national median. In 2000, it was 1.55 times. In 2021, it was 1.7 times.

Now, the bill may be coming due. The median single-family home in Greater Boston cost $707,250 in January, compared to $378,700 nationally in the fourth quarter of last year. In Boston, 46 percent of renters are “rent-burdened.” For years, housing advocates warned that crippling housing prices and the lure of cheaper housing elsewhere would eventually affect the state’s ability to sustain and attract businesses. Now a tipping point seems to have been reached; 110,000 people have left the state since the beginning of the pandemic, nearly enough to fill Fenway Park three times over.

The same story can be told of New Hampshire, although the timeline is somewhat different. Progressive zoning ordinances swept the state, separating workplaces from living spaces, segregating multi-family units from single-family units, and putting government in charge of everyone’s property. The results were predictable. Government regulations prevented developers from supplying the amount of housing necessary to meet demand, and the resulting shortage drove prices to record highs.

It’s not that this story was never told. It showed up in stories about specific housing proposals over the years. But now mainstream news organizations are connecting the dots to tell the bigger story. The Globe’s recognition that local regulations are central to the region’s housing shortage is important because the problem can’t be fixed until we’ve identified its cause. With the largest newspaper in New England lending its voice to the land use regulation reform movement, the push for increased private property rights gains an unexpected but welcome ally.

In 2019, the state created a Housing Appeals Board to offer a speedier resolution to land use disputes between property owners and local boards. Though the cases that have gone to the board have been resolved quickly, a large backlog of cases remains in Superior Court.

Richard Head, government relations coordinator for the state judicial branch, told the House Judiciary Committee last month that the volume of land use cases in state courts has not noticeably changed since the Housing Appeals Board began operations in 2020. It turns out that there are so many legal challenges to local land use decisions that the state Superior Court has a constant load of between 60-100 cases at any given time, according to the judicial branch.

It can take more than a year for a landowner or developer just to get a court hearing if a local board improperly denies a building permit. It can take up to three years before the courts reach a decision, developers say. That long wait gives local regulatory bodies an upper hand in these disputes. 

The legal playing field should not be tilted in favor of government. Private citizens, whether homeowners challenging the rejection of a garage or developers challenging the denial of a commercial project, should have quick and ready access to the court system when they suspect a local board of illegally denying them the use of their property. (Local governments deserve the same if they suspect a developer of violating local ordinances.)

Within the court system, there are two obstacles. One, there aren’t enough Superior Court judges. The judicial branch is 3.5 judges short of being able to keep up with its existing caseload, according to its own presentations to legislators. Two, land use cases tend to be large and highly complex, which slows them down. 

New Hampshire has more than 200 unique zoning codes, many of them exceeding 100 pages, according to testimony by state Rep. Ben Ming, D-Hollis, an attorney who practices real estate law. 

The judges who hear these cases say the parties would be better served if a single judge could be assigned to hear all land use cases. 

“When asked, the judges in our Superior Court described these types of cases as complex,” Head told the House Judiciary Committee in January. The judges “require a great deal of time to get up to speed” when they receive one of these cases. 

“And one of the things the judges commented on was if we only see these as part of our regular docket and mixed in and occasionally, it is just a greater lift to get up to speed again and to get refamiliarize yourself not only with the case itself but with the technical aspects of it and the law, which is also, as you’ve heard, very complicated, long, and detailed,” Head said. “So to be able to consolidate these types of cases, the complexity of these cases, into a single docket would just have inherent benefits associated with doing so.”

Head’s explanation came in his testimony in January for House Bill 347, which would create a land use docket in the state Superior Court and fund the hiring of an additional justice to hear those cases. Importantly, the bill covers all local land use regulations, not just housing, so commercial and industrial property would be included. The state has a shortage of industrial buildings too, though it’s not as well known or as severe as the housing shortage. 

Creating a land use docket would accomplish five goals:

  1. Create within the judicial branch a level of expertise on these complex cases that would benefit all parties — the local boards, the property owners, and the justice who handles the cases;
  1. Reduce the long backlog of land use appeals that delay projects and discourage wronged parties from going to court;
  1. Create a level of consistency and continuity on complex land use cases that local boards and property owners could use to guide their future decision-making;
  1. Reduce backlogs of other civil cases, as the complex land use cases go to a newly hired judge;
  1. Generate economic benefits by reducing the amount of time and money local boards, property owners and developers spend in court, freeing them to spend more time concentrating on their core activities. 

Adding a land use docket to the Superior Court, and hiring a justice to handle the cases, will not solve the state’s housing and industrial real estate shortages. Better local land use regulations are the answer. But a separate court docket would greatly improve the dispute resolution process, level the playing field, and have the additional benefit of speeding up court cases in general and reducing the costs for property owners, developers and local governments. 

“In many cases rent control appears to be the most efficient technique presently known to destroy a city—except for bombing.”

— Swedish economist Assar Lindbeck

New Hampshire renters have endured steadily rising prices for many years. Their frustration has reached the point that some lawmakers and activists are advocating a policy once unthinkable in the Granite State: rent control. 

The sense of helplessness is real. From 2013-2022, the median rent for a two-bedroom apartment in New Hampshire rose from $1,076 to $1,558, an increase of 45% according to the New Hampshire Housing Finance Authority’s 2022 Rental Rental Cost Survey. This is well above the inflation rate. Had the median New Hampshire rent tracked the national Consumer Price Index over the last decade, it would be about $200 lower.

Rent control is being offered as a remedy for this desperate situation. But more than 75 years’ worth of research into the effects of rent control reveals a disastrous record. 

Establishing a government-mandated cap on rents or rent increases does not suddenly abolish the real world and the economic laws that apply to it. Investors will continue to seek strong returns, and if government artificially constrains their return on one form of investment, they will seek it elsewhere.

No one has to be a landlord. People choose to build and own apartments in anticipation of earning a significant return on their investment. Studies on the effects of rent control laws show that they tend to make communities worse off by reducing investment in rental properties, shrinking the supply of apartments, raising market rents, lowering overall property values, and locking renters into sub-par units while discouraging them from building their own wealth through homeownership. 

Here are a few of the demonstrated harms caused by government rent control policies:

  • St. Paul, Minn., passed a rent control ordinance in 2021. A University of Southern California study the next year found that “rent control caused property values to fall by 6-7%, for an aggregate loss of $1.6 billion.” It further found that “the tenants who gained the most from rent control had higher incomes and were more likely to be white, while the owners who lost the most had lower incomes and were more likely to be minorities. For properties with high-income owners and low-income tenants, the transfer of wealth was close to zero. Thus, to the extent that rent control is intended to transfer wealth from high-income to low-income households, the realized impact of the law was the opposite of its intention.”
  • A 2018 study of rent control in San Francisco found that the imposition of rent controls reduced the supply of rental housing by 15%, raised rents by 5%, and fueled the conversion of lower-end rental units to higher-end condominiums. The authors found that “landlords of properties impacted by the law change respond over the long term by substituting to other types of real estate, in particular by converting to condos and redeveloping buildings so as to exempt them from rent control. This substitution toward owner occupied and high-end new construction rental housing likely fueled the gentrification of San Francisco, as these types of properties cater to higher income individuals. Indeed, the combination of more gentrification and helping rent controlled tenants remain in San Francisco has led to a higher level of income inequality in the city overall.”
  • From 1970-1994, Cambridge, Mass., imposed strict rent controls and made it hard for the owners of rent-controlled properties to convert them to other uses. Those ordinances were abolished with the passage of a 1994 referendum banning rent control in Massachusetts. This led to increased apartment construction. “Over the next several years, direct dollar investments in housing units, as measured by building-permit filings, more than doubled on an annual basis,” a 2012 study found.
  • A separate 2007 study of the effects in Massachusetts found that rent control did lower rents in covered buildings, but also “led to deterioration in the quality of rental units” and encouraged apartment building owners to “shift units away from rental status.” 
  • A 2000 study of the effects of rent control on tenants found that rent control raised market rents and “the average benefit to tenants in regulated units is negative. This implies that, on average, tenants in rent regulated units would be better off if these controls had never been established.”
  • A 2019 study of rent control in Berlin, Germany found that rent control “reduces rents in the controlled sector, but also leads to rent increases for uncontrolled units. And it “reduced the propensity to move house within rent controlled areas, but only among high-income households.”
  • A 1989 University of Pennsylvania study of rent control in New York City found that capping rents discouraged homeownership, helped whites more than minorities, and reduced investment in and upkeep of rent-controlled units. In short, rent control lowered the quality of apartments while simultaneously discouraging renters from becoming homeowners. “The expected rent control benefits had a significantly negative influence on the propensity to own. That is, consumers with large expected rent control benefits had lower demands for homeownership.”
  • A 2009 review of the economic literature on rent control found that “economic research quite consistently and predominantly frowns on rent control.” It also found that the effect on homelessness was inconclusive. “Several empirical studies find no clear relationship between rent control and homelessness,” according to the review. Some studies found that rent control increased homelessness, others that it had no clear effect or reduced homelessness. Given the mixed results, rent control should not be considered a solution to the problem of homelessness.

The negative effects of rent control are so thoroughly documented that there’s almost no disagreement among economists, left or right, on the issue. “The analysis of rent control is among the best-understood issues in all of economics. Its known adverse effects illustrate the principles of supply and demand,” as Paul Krugman, the left-wing economist and New York Times columnist, put it.

Supply and demand also explains New Hampshire’s high rents. The chart below shows building permits for multifamily housing going back to 1999. 

Though building permits have slowly increased, they haven’t kept up with demand. As a result, New Hampshire’s rental vacancy rate fell from 3.4% in 2013 to 0.5% in 2022. Our high rents are not caused by greed or avarice or the wickedness of capitalism. They’re the direct result of a decades-long slow-down in apartment construction. 

The remedy is not for government to attempt to cap apartment prices. It is for government to permit the construction of new rental units. 

Download this policy brief as a pdf: Rent Control Policy Brief 2-2023

Editor’s note: The percentage increase in the median two-bedroom apartment rent in New Hampshire from 2013-2022 is 45%. The initial post inadvertently had the figure for the five-year increase (26%) pasted in the spot for the 10-year figure. 

In the opening of “The Muppets Christmas Carol,” Gonzo and Rizzo the Rat are selling apples in a dingy London market. Gonzo scolds Rizzo for eating the inventory. 

“Hey, I’m creatin’ scarcity,” Rizzo replies. “Drives the prices up.”

Rizzo is a clever rat.

Later in the movie, the ghosts of the Marleys tell Scrooge how they enjoyed overcharging the poor for rent. (In the Muppets version, there are two Marleys.)

Rizzo didn’t comment on those lines, but he might’ve dead-panned, “maybe someone ate the apartments and drove up prices?”

As Dickens’ classic tale is retold and rewatched this Christmas season, many Granite Staters face a harsh reality that Rizzo — and Scrooge — would understand. Scarcity keeps driving up prices for homes and apartments. 

You don’t need to be visited by the ghosts of housing markets past to see the problem — and why Scrooge would love it. You just have to compare the markets for short-term and long-term rentals.

Demand for short-term rentals has surged nationwide. The number of nights booked in short-term rentals rose 15.8% from October of 2021 to October of 2022, The Wall Street Journal reported last week. 

Investors in short-term rental properties expected prices to rise along with demand. But something happened on the way to sipping daiquiris on the beach as the rent money poured in. A lot of other people responded to the high rates by offering their properties for rent too.

“However, while the absolute number of bookings has risen, there has also been a sharp rise in supply of available short-term rental listings in the U.S., up 23.3% in October 2022 compared with October 2021,” the Journal reported. 

A woman who rents her California home on Airbnb told the Journal, “I’ve felt a massive drop” in rents she can charge. A holiday weekend at her home fell from more than $1,000 per night during the pandemic to around $275 now. Why such a collapse? Demand rose, which drove up prices, and those higher prices prompted investors to increase supply, which brought prices back down. That’s how a market would normally function. 

But it’s not how the market for long-term rentals works. 

In October, median rents were up nationwide by 7.8 percentage points, year over year, according to rent.com. In New Hampshire, the median rent was up 14.12%, by the website’s measure. 

Would-be home-buyers have experienced similar price increases. The median single-family existing-home price was up 8.6% in the third quarter, according to realtor.com. The Union Leader reported Tuesday that the median single-family home price in New Hampshire rose by $34,000 from last November to this November. It’s now $435,000.

For homes, apartments and short-term rentals, demand remains strong. But prices have fallen in only one of those markets: the one where supply faces the fewest constraints.  

“My reaction is that the growth in short-term rentals has come about because people are converting their own homes, or parts of them, into short-term rentals,” said Jason Sorens, director of the Center for Ethics in Society at St. Anselm College and author of the Josiah Bartlett Center’s 2021 housing report. “Rarely do people build units specifically for short-term rental. And that’s where the real housing supply bottleneck is: it’s become harder to build. Without more building, we aren’t going to see a similar supply increase for long-term rentals. But the other point this news shows us is that if we did increase supply, it would reduce rents.”

As we documented last year, overly restrictive local regulations are a significant barrier to new development in New Hampshire. These regulations make it difficult to build new housing, which prevents developers from meeting demand. That creates scarcity, which drives up prices. Rizzo would be proud. 

And Scrooge would be thrilled. Scrooge, don’t forget, was a landlord as well as a money lender. He could get away with charging outrageous rents for decades only if his renters had no cheaper options. So Scrooge would be no fan of loosening land use regulations to allow more apartment and home construction.

If Granite Staters want to avoid turning our existing housing shortage into a Dickensian nightmare, the only solution is to loosen the restrictions and let developers create more supply.   

Two events on opposite ends of the state last week highlighted the central problem with New Hampshire’s housing market.

In Newmarket over the weekend, a group of renters held a demonstration to denounce landlords and protest high rents.

After experiencing a substantial rent increase, one couple said they had to move out of town to find a place where the rent and the quality of the apartment were better matched. 

That place, they said, is New Jersey.

Another protester said she had moved to Maine to find a more reasonable rent.

It’s true that, on average, moving from Rockingham County to Maine will lower one’s rent, as average rents are lower in Maine than in New Hampshire.

Apartmentlist.com puts the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment at $952 in Maine and $1,329 in New Hampshire.

Home prices are lower in Maine too.

The median home price in New Hampshire is about $430,000. 

In Maine, it’s about $350,000.

Maine and New Hampshire have almost identical populations. Maine has 1.34 million people, and New Hampshire has 1.35 million people.

That’s not enough of a difference to create such huge price variations for housing.

Why would prices be so much lower in Maine?

In a word: Supply.

Maine has 101,000 more housing units than New Hampshire does, according to Census Bureau data.

That’s almost exactly as many housing units as exist in Merrimack and Cheshire Counties combined. 

If New Hampshire had 101,000 more housing units, what do you think the effect would be on home prices and rents?

A few days before the Newmarket protest, residents of Keene demonstrated exactly why New Hampshire is suffering from a severe housing shortage that has driven home prices and rents to record levels.

On Wednesday, Keene’s Planning, Licenses and Development Committee recommended unanimously that the city council send back to committee a proposed zoning ordinance that would allow more housing in the city’s rural district, the Keene Sentinel reported.

The city had proposed reducing the minimum lot size in the rural zone from 5 acres to 2. 

That’s right. The City of Keene has a rural zone with a mandatory minimum lot size of five acres. Within that zone, no house may legally be built on any lot smaller than five acres.

This is exactly the kind of government regulation that reduces the housing supply and raises prices. 

Keene officials wanted to do their part to make it less expensive to build single-family homes in large sections of the city. But about 15 people showed up to oppose the ordinance, with many saying it would change the rural character of the City of Keene. 

Spooked city officials promptly moved to withdraw and rework the proposed ordinance.

Meanwhile, prices continue to rise and pressure continues to build for legislative action. Activists are pushing hard for state laws to pre-empt local zoning ordinances or regulate prices.

If local governments don’t take more decisive action to trim regulations that limit housing supply, state-imposed solutions will come. It’s only a matter of time.