National Expert Kick Starts Portsmouth Affordability Efforts

By Elizabeth Nguyen

We’ve been thinking a lot about affordable housing strategies here in Portsmouth since attending the events sponsored by PS21: Portsmouth Smart Growth for the 21st Century on January 28th and 29th. Are you spending less than 45% of your income on housing and transportation combined? Housing and commuting costs are linked, and both should be part of any strategy to provide affordable housing, according to Smart Growth expert Jennifer Hurley. The invited presenter and facilitator at the workshops, Hurley noted that spending a combined 45% on housing and transportation is an unachievable goal for many earners making less than the median household income of $68,436 in the Portsmouth area. The problem? Few transportation options and a low supply of a diversity of housing types that are accessible to jobs and services.

Two powerful takeaways from her presentation were not necessarily intuitive:

1.      You can’t have affordability without walkability. Walkability reduces transit costs and offers a high supply of smaller, centrally located housing units that can meet the market demands of a growing number of childless households. These do not have to be downtown, but could be developed as neighborhood hubs at underutilized spaces and paired with improved shared transportation options. Likewise, encouraging accessory dwelling units (in-law apartments) within our existing walkable and accessible neighborhoods would help meet this demand.

2.      Even building high cost housing stock will improve the affordability of lower cost housing. New high cost housing eases demand for low cost housing by providing for buyers who are willing to spend more, keeping the existing stock more affordable. You cannot, however, build your way out of the problem. More building and walkability also drive up land costs. When combined with solutions such as policy incentives for mixed income developments, community land trusts (see Dorchester, MA), and other forms of land banking acquisition some space can be reserved from market forces to the benefit of the city as a whole.

Developing local action plans was the focus of Hurley's Friday workshop at the Portsmouth Library. Some direct results of that workshop were participants establishing a work group to press for key policy changes and  organizing a community charrette to explore possibilities for underutilized properties.  Other tactical solutions can be found in the delightfully practical and dense 5-page paper “Affordable Housing Policy Guide Smart Code Module” co-authored by Hurley and available on PS21’s website.

While these efforts will help those earning just below the median income, Hurley cautioned, meeting affordability targets for low and no income households can only be achieved through a concerted policy effort from all levels government. According the Portsmouth’s 2014 Housing Existing Conditions Report, “Certain types of housing, in particular small apartments (with 0-1 bedroom) and larger units suitable for families (4+ bedrooms), are in short supply. About half of Portsmouth’s jobsmostly those in the service sectorprovide wages under $50,000 per year.”  The report also acknowledges that the greatest need for affordable housing in Portsmouth is for those earning less than 50% of the median income.

We see that in other states government solutions can work. In Utah, for example, the state has effectively housed all of its homeless and Denver is implementing a 10-year plan to do the same. Federal funding alone is insufficient to the need, however.

As we work on solutions, it will be important to be mindful of carving out policies and incentives for mixed income development within the downtown core and frequent and convenient transportation options when affordable housing is pushed to the periphery. Let’s not be afraid to reassess how we develop our core and provide opportunities for a walkable commute instead. Let’s demand that the city, and all that we think of when we imagine it, be open to all of us.

For more information on how you can become involved in the action plans, and for a video of Jennifer Hurley’s talk on Thursday evening, plus links to other articles on the issue, please visit the PS21 website

Downtown parking lots: orange are public and yellow are private. Image by Manypenny Murphy Architecture.