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 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 the Manchester area’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 of 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.”

 

The devastating wildfires on the Hawaiian island Maui have triggered a debate over a protectionist shipping law that’s hindering relief efforts. Even some who typically support government intervention in the economy are speaking out against the century-old law. 

The Merchant Marine Act of 1920, or the Jones Act, is a federal law that restricts shipping between U.S. ports to ships that are U.S.-owned, U.S.-built, and U.S.-crewed only. Those restrictions make it harder for mainlanders to help their fellow Americans, such as Puerto Ricans and Hawaiians, after serious disasters. Seeing this, The Boston Globe has called for the act’s full repeal, citing the increased costs of cargo and shipping and the delayed arrival of relief aid. 

Relief efforts for Americans who happen to live on islands are hampered by a century-old shipping law that delays the arrival of short-term aid and makes long-term recovery more difficult and costly…. One not so small suggestion, Mr. President: Ask Congress to repeal the Jones Act, which continues to be a hindrance every time disaster strikes islands.

By connecting the Maui tragedy to the Jones Act, The Boston Globe has again put itself on the side of long overdue free-market reform in this policy area.

Foreign shipbuilding long ago outstripped that being done in the US — and it’s far less expensive. A recently constructed container ship built to serve Hawaii from the mainland carried a price tag of more than $225 million, according to the CATO Institute, compared to $41 million for a similar South Korean-built ship. Operating costs of American vessels, that same study noted, are roughly three times that of their international counterparts.

Thus, the protectionist Jones Act simply adds to the cost of everything carried on those US vessels. A 2020 study by the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii estimated that the Jones Act cost the average Hawaiian family some $1,800 a year and cost the islands overall some $1.2 billion a year. So, yes, it will constitute a substantial burden on Maui’s recovery.

After Hurricane Fiona struck Puerto Rico last September, The Globe pointed out that the Jones Act hindered relief efforts and subsequently called for its repeal

Once again, Puerto Ricans are paying the price for an antiquated shipping law that makes food and other goods more expensive on the island. The law is inexcusable in ordinary times — and downright scandalous now, when the island is reeling from yet another natural disaster. 

One hundred years of protectionism in U.S. shipping has artificially inflated the price of goods for all Americans, as well as the cost of shipping itself. And by shielding U.S. shipbuilders from foreign competition, the Jones Act has stunted U.S. shipbuilding while the rest of the world has thrived in a competitive global market. 

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, the United States has only 99 ships that are Jones Act-compliant for domestic transports. Meanwhile, there are more than 60,000 commercial vessels in the ocean around the world.

Whether it be wildfires in Hawaii or hurricanes in Puerto Rico, this anti-free-market law burdens the shipping of crucial aid to U.S. islands and their people. And while the Jones Act’s ramifications are on full display when places like Hawaii and Puerto Rico need emergency relief, the adverse effects of the federal law reach New Hampshire consumers as well. 

High energy costs have been hurting Granite Staters for years, and the Jones Act plays a supporting role. New England’s limited access to pipelines and minimal pipeline capacity make its entire energy grid more dependent upon shipping oil and natural gas from other states when demand heightens during the winter months.

For New Hampshire to access the bulk of U.S.-produced oil and gas, though, would involve transporting fuel on tankers from domestic producers like Texas or Pennsylvania.

There’s just one problem: The United States doesn’t have any liquid natural gas (LNG) tankers that are Jones Act-compliant to ship oil and gas from Texas or Pennsylvania to New England. And foreign-made tankers are prohibited from shipping oil and gas between U.S. states because of the Jones Act. The results include higher energy costs for Granite Staters, a greater reliance on imported fuel, and higher odds that New Hampshire suffers blackouts during periods of peak energy demand. 

The best option for Granite State consumers would be to allow any tanker to make deliveries directly between U.S. ports. (New England governors have repeatedly sought Jones Act waivers to allow that.) 

This would help open New Hampshire’s energy grid to domestic fuel, doing so at a lower price than imports. In fact, a J.P. Morgan analysis finds that merely suspending the Jones Act could save consumers 10 cents per gallon of gas just by allowing more inexpensive foreign ships to transport domestic gas between U.S. ports.

The Jones Act even contributes to New England’s traffic troubles. Because the law effectively prevents transporting domestic cargo over coastal waters, the freight that otherwise would be shipped is instead hauled by truckers, further clogging the interstates surrounding New York City and Boston. 

It shouldn’t take a natural disaster for the Jones Act to face this kind of scrutiny. But The Globe deserves credit for taking these periodic opportunities to educate the public on the law’s harmful effects and argue forcefully for its repeal.

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.   

The new state occupational licensing overhaul (House Bill 409) passed this session and signed by Gov. Chris Sununu on August 8 eliminated a little-known, triple-license requirement for barbers and others in the beauty and grooming industry, serving as a perfect example of how license requirements can easily get out of hand. 

Both barbers and barbershops have to be licensed in New Hampshire, a common practice nationally. But for years New Hampshire also required a “booth license” for independent barbers who rented a booth in a licensed barbershop.

Like hair stylists, barbers can be either employees or independent contractors. It’s not uncommon for salons and barbershops to rent booths to stylists and barbers who work for themselves. 

In these situations, the state required three licenses: 1. The barber had to obtain a barber’s license; 2. The barbershop had to be licensed; 3. The barber who rented a booth inside the already licensed barbershop also had to get a separate booth license. 

This booth license applied to all barbers, cosmetologists, manicurists, and estheticians in New Hampshire looking to rent space.

These independent practitioners had to pay a two-year, $75 fee and subject their individual booth to a state inspection—even though the shop itself was already subject to licensure and inspection.

House Bill 409 lifted that unnecessary triple licensure, among many other changes. HB 409 reorganized the Office of Professional Licensure and Certification (OPLC) and streamlined the state’s regulatory regime for occupations in the beauty and grooming industry.

Since the governor signed the bill earlier this month, licensed beauty and grooming professionals renting a space in a licensed shop no longer have to get a separate booth license. 

The Keene Sentinel reported that practitioners are already expressing gratitude for the change. Jeanne Chappell, Keene Beauty Academy president and chair of the state board that regulates barbers, cosmetologists, and estheticians, said the booth license was duplicative.

“This will save time and money, and also you won’t have to hold two licenses to be a booth renter,” she told The Keene Sentinel. 

Eliminating unnecessary and repetitive licensing paperwork was the goal of HB 409, and immediately after passage the bill is already providing relief.

This regulatory unburdening comes on the heels of HB 594, which allowed the OPLC to recognize out-of-state occupational licenses. Barbers, cosmetologists, manicurists, and estheticians are among the many practitioners who can quickly get licensed in New Hampshire if they hold a valid, current, and substantially similar license in another state. 

Occupational licensing requirements are sold as a necessary health and safety measure. Often, though, they create obstacles to employment without providing any measurable health or safety benefit. The now eliminated booth license was a perfect example of how these regulations can generate costs and burdens without improving health or safety.



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.

 

 

Two weeks after New Hampshire posted a record-low unemployment rate of 1.9%, Gov. Chris Sununu signed two bills to make it easier for licensed professionals from other states to work here. 

New Hampshire requires state-issued licenses for dozens of occupations, from barbers and cosmetologists to doctors, landscape architects, and even foresters. For decades, anyone who held an out-of-state license to practice in one of these fields had to first get a separate New Hampshire license before being allowed to practice here. 

House Bill 594 ends that regulatory nightmare and grants universal recognition for occupational licenses that are “substantially similar” to New Hampshire licenses. 

The adoption of HB 594 makes New Hampshire the only state in New England with broad universal license recognition. (Vermont recognizes out-of-state licenses for some but not all occupations). 

Research on licensing recognition suggests that this should produce a noticeable increase in in-migration by licensed professionals who live in other states.

A study published in May by the Archbridge Institute found that universal license recognition produces an almost full percentage-point increase in employment in covered occupations and a 50% increase in immigration into recognition states among people who hold licenses that aren’t easily portable because the regulations vary a lot from state to state.

HB 594 allows the state Office of Professional Licensure (OPLC) to issue professional licenses to out-of-state applicants who hold a license in another state, provided that the other state’s licensing requirements are “substantially similar” to New Hampshire’s.

The “substantially similar” language is not ideal, as it often serves as a pretext for state licensing boards to reject license applications from out-of-state competitors. But HB 594 and a companion bill, House Bill 655, shift more authority from individual boards to the OPLC, which is expected to limit those anti-competitive board interventions.

HB 594 streamlines what was otherwise a tedious regulatory process for out-of-state professionals looking to work in New Hampshire. Not only did license holders have to obtain a separate New Hampshire license, but they often had to wait weeks or even months for their industry’s particular regulatory board to meet, consider their application, and vote on it. 

Now, anyone with an active license in good standing from another jurisdiction can apply directly to the OPLC and obtain permission to work in New Hampshire almost immediately. 

Once limited to only a few fields, such as medicine and hair care, occupational licensing “affects nearly 1 in 5 American workers,” research by the Institute for Justice shows.

By establishing a procedure to recognize most out-of-state licenses automatically, New Hampshire becomes a more attractive option for skilled individuals seeking to bring their talents to a new state. 

For fields in New Hampshire with critical labor shortages, such as nursing, the change could provide a desperately needed supply of new workers.

The greatest beneficiaries of universal licensure might be New Hampshire’s small businesses. Among the many trades affected by licensing in the state are tattoo artists, massage therapists, architects, barbers and cosmetologists, chiropractors, foresters, psychologists and other mental health professionals, real estate agents, occupational and physical therapists, and electricians.

An increase in skilled labor will benefit consumers too. Occupational licensing has been shown in academic studies to limit the supply of service providers and increase costs. Universal recognition won’t necessarily lower costs across the board, but it could stabilize prices in fields with serious labor shortages. And by attracting more providers to the state, it can reduce wait times and increase access to services.

The governor’s approval of the two bills was immediately noticed by policy leaders in other New England states that don’t have universal license recognition. Responding to the news, the Maine Policy Institute tweeted, “File this in the big folder of things that NH does far better than Maine.”

Massachusetts, which ranks fifth in the country for residents leaving the state, according to USPS change-of-address data from Forbes, might want to keep a particularly close eye on the number of licensed professionals who disappear from state registries in the next few years.

Nationally, New Hampshire joins only 14 other states (Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Utah, Virginia, and Wyoming) with broad universal recognition laws, according to recent studies by the Archbridge Institute and Goldwater Institute.

Four of those states (Colorado, Montana, Pennsylvania, and Wyoming) require out-of-state licenses to be “substantially similar” to their own, like New Hampshire. But unlike five of those states (Arizona, Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, and Mississippi), New Hampshire doesn’t require residency to receive a license to practice. This means that barbers or nurses in Massachusetts could quickly be licensed to work in New Hampshire without having to move over the border (where housing is extremely hard to find).

The companion bill, HB 655, consolidates and simplifies licensure authority within the OPLC, moving its authority to a separate location in state law and authorizing the OPLC to act with more speed and independence than in the past.

Taken together, these bills, now law, promote greater efficiency in state licensing and reduce bureaucratic barriers that never should have been erected in the first place.

It just got a lot easier to grow a home-based food operation in New Hampshire.

It’s long been legal to make what the state defines as non-dangerous food products in your kitchen and sell them to the public, under certain conditions. One of those conditions has been a cap on total sales revenue. If you sell no more than $35,000 worth of food, no state license is needed. A penny more, and you’re subject to state licensing and inspection.

Until July 1, that is.

House Bill 119, adopted on Thursday, removes revenue as a condition that would trigger state licensure. 

As introduced, HB 119 would have doubled the sales cap to $70,000. But the House struck the income threshold entirely, and senators agreed to the change. Restrictions on food types and sales locations remain in place.

This might sound like a controversial change, but the bill sailed through the Legislature, passing the House in March and the Senate in May, both on voice votes. Fifty-three people signed up to testify on the bill during its Senate hearing, none in opposition. A veto is not expected from the governor. 

The sales threshold had just been raised from $20,000 to $35,000 last year. Legislators’ efforts to rapidly expand and then eliminate that threshold are a testament to the growth of home-based food businesses in recent years and the general acknowledgement in Concord that the sales limits have served no valid public health purpose. 

That’s probably because you can’t sell just anything you make in your kitchen. RSA 143-A:12 defines a homestead food operation as one in which food is prepared entirely in a residential kitchen, but the law prohibits these small businesses from selling foods that require temperature control (think dairy products or anything else that must be frozen or refrigerated) and certain canned foods. Sales locations are also limited to residences, farm stands, farmer’s markets, and retail locations. A home-based food business that meets those conditions is exempt from state regulations that apply to food service establishments and retail food stores.

There was bipartisan agreement in both the House and Senate that eliminating the sales threshold would eliminate a needless burden for home cooks, bakers, jam makers, and similar food vendors who sell non-hazardous food products prepared in a residential kitchen. 

A small, home-based food business, for example, will be able to scale up without having to worry about becoming subject to state licensure after a few successful fall fairs. 

The House Environment and Agriculture Committee “heard in testimony that the current annual gross sales threshold is not even tracked or reported by DHHS Food Safety Division, and there is no violation penalty for going over the current threshold, so there is no real reason to have it in current statute,” according to the committee report. “Also, the one size fits all approach on annual gross sales makes no sense due to the varying sale price of goods offered for sale, and this bill will also eliminate that issue,” the committee further noted. 

Non-potentially hazardous foods that home-based entrepreneurs will be able to sell more freely include breads, baked goods, candy, fudge, packaged dried products, dried herbs, roasted whole bean coffee or ground coffee, and jams and jellies, among others. 

Examples of potentially hazardous foods that homestead food operations are prohibited from selling include “processed acidified and low-acid canned foods” like pickles, salsa, and relish. Others include meat, poultry, fish, eggs, milk and other dairy products, cut fruit and vegetables, baked potatoes, mushrooms, and more. 

By removing the maximum sales cap, HB 119 would improve New Hampshire’s standing amongst other states’ homestead food laws. According to a survey by the Institute for Justice of homemade food laws across the 50 states, New Hampshire has an overall C grade and a C+ for its homestead license laws (before HB 119).

Massachusetts and New York have similar grades of C and C+, respectively, while Florida has a B-, Tennessee has a B+, and Maine has a B+ in cities and counties with their own food sovereignty ordinances. 

While the bill removes a state-level regulatory hurdle, New Hampshire will still have 15 self-inspecting cities and towns with their own licensing requirements for homestead food operations within their borders. 

The only drama involved with this bill came when legislators tacked on an amendment allowing the sale of uninspected elk and red deer meat in addition to bison.

The bill exempts farms that raise elk or red deer for human consumption, as well as their direct sale, from licensing and inspection requirements, provided the animals are slaughtered and processed in accordance with state law. The slaughtering of these animals and their preparation for sale are also exempt from inspection.

HB 119 adds elk and red deer to the labeling and purchasing rules that already exist for uninspected bison. 

The legislation itself sunsets these changes regarding elk and red deer meat. Unless reauthorized by the Legislature, these food service and meat inspection exemptions will automatically end in 2025. This allows the state a two-year period in which to test whether eliminating regulations causes any public health issues. 

The easy passage of HB 119 is an encouraging sign that legislators are paying closer attention to unnecessary food regulations that burden residents without improving public health. 

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.