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. 

Hanover could be the canary in the coal mine for housing-induced labor shortages in New Hampshire. 

The town has canceled its annual Fall Fest and its after-school program for grades three through five because it can’t find enough staff, the Valley News reported.  

Why can’t the town find enough staff? The town manager cited the region’s housing shortage.

“We’ll have someone interested in a position and then they can’t find housing or can’t find childcare,” he said. 

Hanover’s severe housing shortage has driven prices so high that government employees often have to live out of town because they can’t afford any of the homes in the town for which they work. 

Hanover was New Hampshire’s sixth most housing-restricted community in our study of local land use regulations, published last fall. 

Without relief from overly restrictive planning and zoning ordinances, more New Hampshire communities are likely to experience similar service cuts. Local regulations that make it difficult to build anything but higher-end housing can create or worsen labor shortages by driving out middle- and lower-income residents. 

This exact scenario is playing out in higher-cost communities nationwide. New Hampshire is not immune. We’ll probably see more stories like this before voters are prompted to act.

By Jason Sorens

Gov. Chris Sununu and his opponent, Sen. Tom Sherman, have proposed reforms to alleviate New Hampshire’s severe housing shortage. How do those proposals compare, and how effective would they be? A brief overview of each suggests that neither would solve New Hampshire’s housing shortage, but Gov. Sununu’s initiative would be likely to result in more housing construction.

Democratic Sen. Sherman released his housing plan for New Hampshire in July, calling it a longer-term fix than incumbent Republican Gov. Chris Sununu’s “federal band-aid,” the InvestNH Housing Fund approved in May. Of course, InvestNH is not the sum of Gov. Sununu’s housing policy, nor has he yet released a detailed plan for the coming term. Therefore, a direct comparison of the two candidates’ housing policies is imperfect at this time, but we can still assess what is good, bad, and mediocre in each set of proposals: Sherman’s housing plan and Sununu’s InvestNH Housing Fund.

Gov. Sununu’s InvestNH plan

The governor’s InvestNH program consists of $60 million in grants for owners and developers, and $40 million in grants for municipalities. In an ideal world, taxpayer dollars wouldn’t be used to subsidize a private industry at all. Yet government has created housing scarcity by strictly regulating home-building, not in the interest of health or safety, but simply with the explicit goal of preventing new people from living in the area. The obvious solution is to remove the unnecessary regulations that limit residential construction. But those regulations rest at the local level, and legislators have proven reluctant to overrule them with state laws. Using financial resources as incentives to work around or relax local regulations is a compromise that attempts to produce quick results while accepting the political reality that no statewide fix is achievable this year.

Still, if the state is going to subsidize home-building, it had better be done in efficient and effective ways. Grants to municipalities to encourage them to lift regulatory restrictions on new homes might be the most easily justified way of deploying financial resources because they attack the problem at the source: the tangle of local regulations that prevent building.

The InvestNH municipal grants consist of three streams: $30 million in grants to municipal governments on a per-building permit basis, $5 million in grants to assist with regulatory evaluation and redesign, and $5 million to cover the costs of demolition of vacant or dilapidated buildings.

Towns will get $10,000 for every building permit they issue within six months of application for new rental units constructed in projects made up of five or more units. Because of the short timeline, this money is not going to incentivize changes to zoning ordinances. Projects of this size almost always require a variance from the local board of adjustment, so this money mainly works as an incentive for those boards to approve more projects, or at least cooperate to speed them along.

The $5 million will go to municipalities for consulting on their housing needs, reviewing current regulations, and rewriting regulations. The primary goal of requests must be to increase housing stock.

The $60 million for capital grants goes directly to developers and the nonprofit New Hampshire Housing Finance Authority. Only multifamily rental housing is eligible. For projects with 15 or more units, applicants must demonstrate an “affordability commitment,” holding rents below market for lower-income tenants for at least 20% of units.

The main advantage of Sununu’s plan is that the money should indeed incentivize new housing construction in a relatively short time frame. By tying the municipal grant money to the issuance of building permits, Sununu’s plan creates a strong incentive for boards to issue more building permits. The state would, in effect, pay municipalities to issue new building permits.

The bulk of the Sununu plan, $60 million for capital grants to stimulate the construction of multifamily housing, might incentivize developers to go forward with projects that contain a higher percentage of lower-priced units than would have been profitable without the grants. Ordinances that require projects to set aside a certain percentage of units for rent at below-market rates tend to discourage development and lead to less new construction. But this cash incentive might do the opposite. It will be difficult to know, however, whether these projects would have been built anyway.

Paying municipalities to consult on housing needs and review regulations might produce better land use regulations, but that outcome is not guaranteed, and this portion of the plan lacks a strong incentive to achieve the desired result.

The strength of Sununu’s plan – that it is focused on stimulating development in the short term – is also a drawback. It does very little to change the long-term dynamics of repressed supply. It also focuses solely on larger multifamily rental projects, as opposed to single-family starter homes and “missing middle” construction.

Sen. Sherman’s plan

Sen. Sherman’s plan is less detailed, but it has these features:

  1. It adds staff to regional planning commissions and the state’s Office of Planning and Development;
  2. It funds municipal review of local land-use ordinances;
  3. It reviews state-level regulatory hurdles to development;
  4. It assesses under-used state lands for development potential;
  5. It promotes model zoning ordinance elements;
  6. It subsidizes loans for water, sewer, and transit infrastructure;
  7. It creates an incentive program for municipalities to adopt more pro-housing ordinances;
  8. It increases community development tax credits;
  9. It increases the affordable housing fund;
  10. It creates a historic rehabilitation tax credit;
  11. It doubles funding for contractor job training.

Sherman touts the fact that his plan features permanent programs rather than a one-time infusion of money. This might not be quite fair to Sununu, since the InvestNH program came out of a unique opportunity to spend federal grants, and the governor has strongly supported legislation that offered some structural changes, including a “housing champion program” that would reward municipalities for changing their ordinances to allow more housing density. Still, Sherman’s plan is intended to be a comprehensive menu of permanent policy changes. The question is whether they would achieve the intended goal of stimulating the construction of more housing.

Some of Sherman’s ideas can be expected to have a greater impact than others. The strongest part of Sherman’s plan is the proposal to tie increases in state transportation and environmental funding to “the adoption of zoning or infrastructure that allows reasonable opportunities for housing.”

Gov. Sununu supported a similar housing champion program that was initially included in Senate Bill 400 this year, but that part of the bill did not pass. Depending on how such a program is designed, it could have considerable long-term impact. A well-designed program will reward municipalities for actual housing unit creation as well as regulatory changes, and will reward regulatory changes that allow for single-family and “missing middle” in addition to statute-defined “workforce housing” (buildings of five units or more).

Expanding sewer access helps the environment and allows more housing and commercial density. It’s unclear how important an obstacle it is to new construction, but it could be a factor.

Sen. Sherman’s proposal for a state job training fund for the construction trades is not likely to relieve the shortage of skilled construction labor, as the funds will surely be a drop in the bucket compared to what the private sector already spends on training, and training is rarely the decisive hurdle discouraging someone from entering a manual-labor occupation.

The CDFA tax credit, which Sen. Sherman would expand, is widely alleged to favor politically connected businesses and nonprofits and doesn’t focus on housing.

The rest of Sen. Sherman’s plan would do little to stimulate new housing development. The bulk of the senator’s plan would fund studies and reviews, or give municipalities and planning commissions additional financial resources that are not tied to the issuance of new building permits or the passage of new, housing-friendly ordinances.

Whereas most of Gov. Sununu’s plan is focused on directly financing new housing construction, most of Sen. Sherman’s plan is focused on providing additional financial resources to local governments, planning commissions, and construction industry labor.

Overall, Gov. Sununu’s plan contains stronger immediate incentives for developers to propose multi-family housing, and for municipalities to issue new permits. Sen. Sherman’s plan also contains some of these incentives, but until funding details are available, it’s impossible to know how much of an impact they will have. Setting up a permanent housing champion program, as both candidates appear to support, would have the potential to change the game.

It’s worth noting that neither candidate is talking about state preemption of local regulation. Zoning preemption bills are becoming more common, and are generating more attention, in the Legislature. One nearly passed the House this year (House Bill 1177, sponsored by Rep. Ivy Vann, to legalize fourplexes wherever water and sewer are available), and several others were proposed.

With both candidates for governor backing programs to incentivize local governments to allow more housing, look for similar proposals to be introduced in the Legislature next year. But if those incentives fail to produce meaningful changes in local regulations, and the state’s severe housing shortage continues to frustrate voters, the pressure for direct preemption of local regulatory barriers will continue to build.

Dr. Jason Sorens is director of the Center for Ethics in Society at St. Anselm College.

Download a pdf copy of this analysis: Gubernatorial Candidates Housing Plans

On August 23, a handful of state laws crafted to address New Hampshire’s housing shortage take effect. Though the big reforms were left on the Legislature’s cutting room floor, these modest changes might prove helpful. 

The splashiest change, which might prompt some warrant articles next spring, applies zoning exemptions carved out for 55+ communities to workforce housing as well. 

Most of the changes are more technical fixes to ensure that municipalities don’t stick proposed developments in a legal limbo simply by delaying or refusing to act on applications. 

These changes amount to mostly modest improvements in the system that will make it slightly less antagonistic to new housing construction. But with home prices and rents remaining at record levels, pressure to pass more powerful reforms is likely to prompt more legislation next year. 

The new laws will:

  • Require the Office of Planning and Development to create and offer training to planning and zoning boards. The initial idea was to require board member training, but that was dropped in favor of making the training available at no cost to board members. 
  • Require that any fee imposed by a local land use board be published “in a location accessible to the public during normal business hours.” Any fee not published at the time an application is submitted shall be waived. 
  • Require that by July 1, 2023, any local incentive established for housing older persons “shall be deemed applicable to workforce housing development.” Many communities exempt 55+ communities from certain zoning requirements. The idea is to create exemptions that allow housing to be built only for people who don’t have school-age children. This change would apply those restrictions to workforce housing as well. 
  • Require that local land use boards issue a final written decision for all applications, and require those decisions to “include specific written findings of fact that support the decision.” Failure to offer specific, written findings of fact would be grounds for automatic reversal by the Superior Court.
  • Require zoning boards of adjustment to issue a final decision on an application within 90 days of receiving the application. 
  • Require planning boards to determine whether submitted applications are complete at the next regularly scheduled meeting, or within 30 days after receiving the application. Boards must then act on an application within 65 days of determining that it’s complete.
  • Require selectmen or city councils to certify approval of a plat if the planning board fails to act within the allotted time. Failure of selectmen or city councils to act will constitute grounds for the Superior Court to act if petitioned to do so by the applicant.
  • Allow municipalities to acquire land for use as workforce housing, but not by eminent domain.
  • Allow municipalities to lease basements, ground and second floors of public buildings for residential use, negotiate the sale or lease of property for residential use, and acquire, improve, operate, maintain or promote residential developments “aimed at increasing the available housing stock within the municipality.”

New Hampshire has the top two hottest housing markets in the country, as rated by real estate search website realtor.com. These ratings should be taken with a grain of salt, as they’re based in part on search queries on a single listings website. But even if the rankings are an accurate representation of the market, that’s not really great news for Granite Staters, as it’s further confirmation that the state suffers from a severe housing shortage.

Having the “hottest housing market” based on realtor.com‘s system doesn’t mean your community is the most desirable in the country. It’s a proxy to measure the intensity of the housing market. Demand is just one side of the coin. Supply is the other, and that’s a big reason why New Hampshire has claimed the top two spots on the list. 

The demand side of the realtor.com rankings is based on unique viewers per property on that website only (which is a serious limitation). Concord tops the list at 3.2 views per property. Manchester is second at 2.6. 

The proxy for the supply side of the ranking is based on how long homes stay on the market. Median time spent on the market in Concord is 13 days, according to the site. For Manchester it’s 12 days. 

Rochester, N.Y., has a median time on the market of 12 days, making it the only other community in the site’s list of top 20 hottest markets that is close to the Concord and Manchester numbers.

Such a short time spent on the market indicates not just high demand, but an extremely low supply. A balanced market is considered one that has at least six months of inventory. It would take less than a month to sell every home on the market in New Hampshire, according to the New Hampshire Housing Finance Authority.

The realtor.com ranking shows Concord and Manchester to be in the top four communities for price, behind two other New England metropolitan areas. That’s another sign that our supply is extremely low.

The top median listing prices were Portland, Maine, at $549,000, Burlington, Vt., at $484,000, Manchester at $478,000, and Concord at $457,000. 

Concord and Manchester had higher median asking prices than Worcester, Mass., Springfield, Mass., Hartford, Conn., and New Haven, Conn. 

A housing growth map published this week by Axios helps illustrate the underlying supply problem. It shows the percent change in housing units from last July to this July, by county.

Only three counties in New England experienced at least a 1% increase in housing units in the last year. Grafton County was the only one in the Granite State.  

The New Hampshire Housing Finance Authority’s annual Housing Market report, released last month, again noted that it “would take at least 20,000 housing units to achieve a balanced market” in the state.

New Hampshire is indeed a highly desirable place to live. The combination of remote work and the pandemic have boosted demand for homes in the Granite State. With remote work now a permanent and growing feature of white collar employment, and blue state refugees seeking low-tax jurisdictions from which to live and work, demand for homes in New Hampshire is likely to remain elevated for years. 

But it’s important for policymakers and voters to understand that this is not the cause of New Hampshire’s housing shortage or high prices. Housing prices in the state have risen steadily since 2012. The recent bump in demand just adds to the previously existing imbalance. 

New Hampshire was in a housing shortage long before the pandemic. That shortage will remain, as will the resulting high prices, until supply is increased enough to balance demand. 

Being labeled home to the nation’s “hottest housing market” would be nice if that term measured demand only. In reality, it’s further confirmation that we don’t have enough housing.

In 1970, Manchester had more than enough rentals for all who needed one. Over the course of the next half century, the city created its own housing shortage. 

It’s a story repeated in many communities throughout New Hampshire. Manchester offers a case study based on Census figures.

Manchester had 36,024 total housing units in 1970, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. In 2020, the city had 49,445 housing units. That’s an increase of 37% in 50 years. 

By comparison:

  • Salem’s housing units grew from 6.795 in 1970 to 12,005 in 2020, an increase of 76%. 
  • Nashua’s housing units grew from 20,984 in 1970 to 37,933 in 2020, an increase of 80%.
  • Derry’s housing units grew from 4,279 in 1970 to 13,539 in 2020, an increase of 216%.
  • Total statewide housing units increased from 280,962 in 1970 to 638354 in 2020, an increase of more than 127%.

Those are total units, not just rentals. But you can see the rental shortage in the vacancy rate. Manchester’s rental vacancy rate fell from 5.4% in 1970 to below 1% today. 

(New Hampshire suffers from a similarly low vacancy rate, also caused by a shortage of rentals. Local planners in many communities have preferred to approve single-family homes rather than rentals.)

Because Manchester did not allow the construction of enough housing, the city’s population growth rate lagged the rates in some other municipalities. 

From 1970-2020, Manchester’s population grew by 32%. During the same period, Nashua’s population grew by 64%, Derry’s by 95%, and Salem’s by 342%. New Hampshire’s population grew by 87%. 

Because city officials chose to limit growth, Manchester’s population and economy have grown at a slower rate than the rest of the state as a whole. Artificially limiting the city’s housing supply created a drag on the city’s economic growth and cultural life.

If city leaders want to stimulate Manchester’s economy, revitalize its public schools, increase its tax base, and enhance its cultural life, goal No. 1 should be to approve a lot more housing, with an immediate emphasis on rentals. 

Granite Staters support building affordable housing in their communities, and even in their neighborhoods, a new poll from the Center for Ethics in Society at St. Anselm College has found.

The results upend the traditional view that residents don’t want new housing built close to them. That view has been used for decades to justify local regulations that limit the construction of homes and apartments. The new poll suggests that Granite Staters are much more open to change than previously assumed. 

Granite Staters expressed in the poll strong support for building affordable housing in people’s own communities, changing local regulations to allow more housing, and limiting local planning and zoning regulations.   

Among the findings:

BUILDING AFFORDABLE HOUSING 

  • By a 69%-29% margin, New Hampshire voters said “my community needs more affordable housing to be built.” This represents a 9% increase from last year’s survey. 
  • For the first time, the center asked a subset of voters about building affordable housing in their “neighborhood” instead of their “community.” While “community” might refer to a whole town or city, “neighborhood” sounds like a much smaller context to most people. Respondents still endorse building more affordable housing in their own neighborhood by a 7-point margin (50-43%). 

CHANGING LAWS AND REGULATIONS 

  • By a 52-40% margin, New Hampshire voters support changing town and city zoning regulations to allow more housing to be built.
  • By a 70-21% margin, respondents endorse setting a “hard limit” on how long local planning and zoning boards can take to review permits to build housing.
  • By a 38-35% margin, Granite State voters endorse the concept of a bill that failed this session, which would have allowed property owners to build up to four housing units on any residentially zoned lot served by municipal water and sewer.

REEXAMINING WHERE HOUSING IS BUILT

  • By a 61-37% margin, N.H. voters oppose the idea that multifamily housing should only be built in cities, not in suburbs and rural areas.
  • By a 53-42% margin, voters oppose the state “doing more to prevent housing development and keep the state the way it is.” The poll’s data shows young people under 35 and retirees are generally the most supportive of building more homes and changing state and local laws to allow that to happen. As expected, non-homeowners are more likely than homeowners to endorse building affordable and multifamily housing. It also shows that while conservatives are less likely to endorse the concept of affordable housing, they are more likely than liberals to endorse having the state set a hard limit on municipal permit review timelines. 

“Legislators have yet to address the acute housing shortage caused by local overregulation in this session, but these poll results show that Granite State voters don’t want to wait,” Jason Sorens, director of the Center for Ethics in Society, told the Josiah Bartlett Center. “They want their own towns to change the rules to allow more homes to be built, and they want state government to get involved by setting a hard limit on permit review times and maybe even directly preempting local zoning rules. Going full ostrich on the housing issue could hurt the legislative majority if the problem continues to go unaddressed.”

Though Gov. Chris Sununu championed housing reform at the start of the year, the Legislature killed most reform efforts. The biggest housing bill of the year (Senate Bill 400) passed the Senate, but stalled in the House over concerns about the political costs of limiting local governments’ ability to restrict new development.

The bill would have slightly curtailed the power of local boards to limit where residential housing is built, and it would have allocated more state funding to municipalities that allowed more housing. 

The House removed those provisions and amended others, severely weakening the bill. 

Last week, both chambers incorporated a watered down version of SB 400 into another bill, HB 1661. It requires local boards to include written, specific findings of fact when rejecting a housing application. It requires zoning boards to begin formal consideration of received applications within 90 days of receiving them, and planning boards within 65 days.

A requirement for municipalities to grant workforce housing the same regulatory allowances made for senior housing was changed from a “shall” to a “may.” And a provision forbidding local boards from putting age restrictions on workforce housing was removed. 

Legislators also killed a bill to allow duplexes, triplexes and quadplexes on any single-family lot, one to forbid minimum lot sizes of more than half an acre unless it’s to accommodate a septic system, another to forbid minimum lot sizes of more than 10,000 square feet (excluding those with septic systems), and one forbidding proscriptions on workforce housing. 

Legislators did pass a bill to create a commission to study barriers to housing construction.  

A report published by the Josiah Bartlett Center last October, and written by the Center for Ethics in Society’s Sorens, detailed how local land use regulations have reduced the state’s housing supply and driven up prices.

The study found that residential land use regulations are associated with growing socioeconomic segregation and slowing population growth.

As housing becomes more expensive, fewer people are moving to New Hampshire, especially to those towns that are most expensive. Those who stay are disproportionately wealthy and college-educated, while middle- and lower-income families leave because they cannot find affordable housing. Costly housing in towns with better schools also limits families’ access to educational opportunity. Finally, the sprawl caused by anti-density policies such as minimum lot sizes increases drive times and road maintenance costs and worsens air and water quality.

 

 

New Hampshire’s critical housing shortage has emerged as the No. 1 impediment to state economic growth, and the legislative session could end with no substantial progress on the issue. 

In Concord, there is broad agreement that housing is a serious problem. There is little agreement on solutions.

Paralyzed by a widespread reluctance to place legal constraints on local governments, legislators have killed or watered down bills drafted to address the primary cause of the shortage: local planning and zoning ordinances. 

Senate Bill 400, intended to be the major housing reform bill of the year, never offered the sort of sweeping changes that would fix the local regulatory problem. But the most significant changes it did offer were removed last week by the House Municipal and County Government Committee. 

The committee even added language designed to exempt suburban and rural communities from the state’s current mandate to allow housing for lower-income families. 

This follows the Legislature’s rejection of previous bills to prohibit excessive minimum lot sizes and allow small multi-family housing (up to four units) in places served by municipal water and sewer. 

Deference to local governments has not been the only obstacle. The House Municipal and County Government Committee removed from SB 400 a state program to reward communities that allow more housing. 

In the bill’s proposed New Hampshire Housing Champion Certification program, municipalities that adopt ordinances to promote new housing development would be eligible for increased state infrastructure funding. 

An absence of a substantial legislative fix would leave Gov. Chris Sununu’s proposed InvestNH Housing Fund as the only statewide plan. The governor has been a strong and passionate leader on the housing issue. Working within his authority to manage COVID relief money, he’s proposed spending $100 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds to create incentives for new housing development. 

That effort was stalled in the Executive Council after objections from affordable housing advocates that the money wasn’t reserved for below-market developments. 

This obsession with steering the housing market toward lower-priced units via government intervention is yet another factor that has contributed to the state’s critical shortage. 

Developers need to make a return on their investment. When government insists that a portion of a development be sold or rented at below-market rates, that discourages new construction. In New Hampshire, town boards even use “workforce housing” quotas to kill projects they don’t want, as they know that these quotas can make projects unprofitable. 

The governor’s plan would allocate $60 million to developers to encourage multi-family housing projects, $30 million to municipalities to encourage the issuance of new housing permits, $5 million to municipalities to study improvements to local planning and zoning ordinances, and $5 million for the demolition of vacant or dilapidated buildings. 

The money to municipalities is directed at overcoming real obstacles by changing the incentives local boards have. Right now there is very little incentive to approve new projects, largely because of vocal opposition fueled by misinformation about the impacts of new housing on local communities. These municipal-directed dollars would offer incentives to move town boards in the right direction.

The seed money for new development would not work the same way. Developers already have every incentive in the world to build, especially in the current market. Developer financing is not a major obstacle to new housing development. Municipal ordinances are. 

The $60 million could cover some lost profits of developments with below-market-rate units. But once that subsidy goes away, those rents will rise to market rate. In any case, subsidizing new development is not necessary, as financing for housing is readily available in the private sector. 

Local ordinances are the problem, and so far, legislators have proven reluctant to approve statewide solutions that limit local authority. Creating better incentives for local governments to approve more housing would be a good option. Unless legislators change course in the next three weeks, the governor’s proposal will be the last statewide solution available this year.

Granite Staters could gain a little more freedom this year to make extra money from home.

The COVID-19 pandemic has reshaped the American workforce, probably permanently. A Pew poll in February found that 59% of people who say their jobs can be done mostly from home are working from home all or most of the time, with another 18% working from home some of the time. 

What’s more, 61% of them say they are working from home by choice. 

A study published by Stanford University in March concluded that “about half of the US workforce currently works remotely at least one day each week.”

Millions of Americans are choosing to convert their living rooms, dens, bedrooms, play rooms, basements, etc. into home offices. 

But for those who don’t type on laptop computers all day, working from home is trickier. Regulations often prevent homes from being monetized in more traditional ways. 

Two bills in the Legislature would relax some restrictions that make it harder for people to generate extra income from their homes. 

RSA 143-A:12 allows Granite Staters to operate a “homestead food operation” from their kitchens. (It excludes foods the require refrigeration.)

To prevent these kitchen businesses from scaling up to full commercial operations, allowable sales are capped at $20,000. 

House Bill 314 would increase that cap to $35,000, letting people make a living, or at least a really strong side-income, from homestead food preparation. The bill would increase a homestead food operator’s maximum allowed weekly sales from $384.60 to $673.

For those who wish to monetize the rest of their home, Senate Bill 249 would prohibit municipalities from banning short-term rentals. 

According to a new analysis by the state Office of Planning & Development, 27 New Hampshire jurisdictions regulate short-term rentals in some way. These range from Franconia’s registration requirement to Bedford’s ban. 

SB 249 would allow short-term rentals statewide while authorizing municipalities to “generally regulate parking, noise, safety, health, sanitation” and apply “other related municipal ordinances” to short-term rentals. 

Municipalities could require registration, and they could revoke that registration if a property is associated with more than one ordinance violation. 

There is some concern that short-term rentals could raise rents and home prices. Studies have found that these rentals are associated with a short-term bump in prices.

But over the long run, short-term rentals have been found to stimulate housing construction.

A study released last fall looked at the effect of Airbnb rentals on housing construction over a decade. It found that a 1% increase in Airbnb listings led to a 0.769% increase in permit applications. 

The authors found that short-term rentals stimulate the construction of new housing units, leading to increased property tax revenue, and that “restricting STRs can have a significant, negative impact on local economic activity.”

It’s not surprising that people will try to build more housing if they can use it to generate extra income. 

These practical considerations aside, regulations on the use of property (particularly for generating income) have grown so strict that they’ve caused a significant erosion of private property rights. 

Historian Edmund S. Morgan wrote that “widespread ownership of property is perhaps the most important single fact about Americans of the Revolutionary period. . . . Standing on his own land with spade in hand and flintlock not far off, the American could look at his richest neighbor and laugh.”

Today, a Granite Stater standing on his own land looks at his neighbor and worries, as the neighbor can call the town planning department and report him for a dozen potential ordinance violations.

Instead of balancing competing private property interests, state and local regulations have long trended against property owners. Regaining that balance will take decades. It can start with small changes that grant a little more discretion to property owners while maintaining rules that allow neighbors to assert their own property rights. 

Though rental housing is in tremendous demand statewide, its share of new building permits issued is shrinking. In 2020, single-family homes represented 59% of new building permits issued in the state, up from 50% the year before. It’s become harder to build multi-family housing in New Hampshire as opponents have become very effective at organizing to block new projects.

With too few apartments being built, the state’s rental vacancy rate has fallen to 0.6%, and average rents, already at record highs last summer, have continued to rise. Rental data tracking site Rent Cafe pegs Manchester’s average rent at $1,646 and Nashua’s at $1,829. The Union Leader reported this past weekend that “stiff rent increases are hitting New Hampshire residents.” 

For both single-family homes and rentals, the record price increases are caused by critical supply shortages. But rentals tend to face stronger local opposition when developers propose projects that would reduce the shortage.

Most of the opposition is caused by persistent myths about multi-family housing’s impact on local communities. With communities finally taking a greater interest in approving new housing projects, it will be important to counteract those myths. 

Fortunately, we have the data to do that. 

The Apartments Lower Home Values Myth

The myth that probably generates the most passionate opposition to new multi-family developments is that they will drive down nearby home values. As a rule, it’s not true.

“Single-family homes located within 1/2 mile of a newly constructed apartment building experienced higher overall price appreciation than those homes farther away,” concluded a University of Utah study last year.

Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies looked at previous research on this topic a few years ago and summarized the results this way:

  1. “Houses with apartments nearby actually enjoy a slightly higher appreciation rate than houses that don’t have apartments nearby.”
  2. “…working communities with multifamily dwellings actually have higher property values than other types of working communities.”
  3. “…proposed multifamily housing rental developments do not generally lower property values in surrounding areas.”

The Apartments Worsen Traffic Myth

“By any measure, it is clear that single-family houses generate more automobile traffic than apartments – or any other type of housing,” Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies concluded in a summary of research on the topic. 

There are several reasons for this. Single-family homes have more residents per unit and more cars per unit than apartments do, and “single-family owners use their cars more often than apartment residents use theirs. On average, cars in single-family houses make 18 percent more trips during the week, 31 percent more trips on Saturday, and 41 percent more trips on Sunday than cars owned by apartment residents.”

The Apartments Raise Property Taxes Myth

This myth is based on the assumption that apartments will flood public schools with students, which will require tax increases. But apartments bring fewer children than single-family developments do. 

Data from Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies shows that out of 100 single-family homes, 51 will have school-age children, but out of 100 apartments, only 31 will have school-age children. “The disparity is even greater when considering only new construction: 64 children per 100 new single-family houses vs. 29 children per 100 new apartment units. Wealthier apartment dwellers have even fewer children (12 children per 100 households for residents earning more than 120 percent of the area median income, AMI), while less wealthy residents earning less than 80 percent of AMI still have fewer children (37 per household) than single-family homes.”

And because apartments often are taxed as commercial property, they usually generate higher property taxes than single-family homes do. 

“Thus, apartments actually pay more in taxes and have fewer school children on average than single-family houses. In other words, it may be more accurate to say that apartment residents are subsidizing the public education of the children of homeowners than the reverse,” the Harvard researchers conclude.

New Hampshire needs tens of thousands of new housing units, and multi-family housing will have to be a large part of that mix. As housing tastes change and home prices surge, rentals are increasingly in demand. Though more people want this type of housing option, local opposition based on myths often succeeds in blocking new construction. Debunking the myths has to be part of any plan to get more housing approved in New Hampshire. 

When opponents claim that apartments will increase traffic, raise property taxes, and lower home values, Granite Staters who would would like to see more housing options should be prepared to counter those myths with data.