Since the day we opened our doors, we’ve been talking about affordable housing. So has our neighbor Elissa Margolin. As the director of Housing Action NH, she works with the people — legislators, bankers, developers, non-profit leaders, state and federal officials — who decide what will happen with affordable housing in New Hampshire over the next decade. And she’s got the scoop on the latest legislation making its way through the State House and Congress.
Rental support programs can’t keep up. “Only 1 in 4 people who qualify for housing assistance actually ever receive it,” Elissa says. “It’s a very flawed system nationally, and the problem’s never been worse. We have in Portsmouth a 1 percent vacancy rate. We almost have zero affordable rental market. And that’s also true in Manchester and Concord.”
Elissa’s coalition helps to identify policy levers that could allow solutions to flow.
“One thing I like about housing development advocacy is that it doesn’t really fall neatly into partisan politics,” Elissa says. “If you think about the Sununu administration, for example, they are all about economic development, pro-growth, and business friendly environment, and they understand the importance of this topic.”
Even so, the state’s financial commitment is slim. Elissa explained that our 30-year-old housing trust fund remains poorly funded—we put most of our real estate transfer tax into the general fund instead.
“We put very little to no money in it while every other state in the nation has been putting money in theirs. We worked very hard through a broad coalition to secure $2.5 million in the last capital budget. … I mean, Vermont’s governor, a Republican, just put $35 million into their fund. Massachusetts’ governor, also a Republican, JUST supported a $1.6 billion investment in affordable housing production over 5 years.”
Instead, New Hampshire developers rely on a complex quilt of federal, public and private resources. Their number-one resource has been the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit. But over the years the state has created more tax credits generally, and now the federal government has lowered the federal business tax rate. “All of a sudden your local low-income housing tax credit is worth less,” Elissa says.
If it’s true that our economic growth is stifled by not having housing, Elissa reflected, then “We’re at the peak of everything we can do. If there’s not housing, we’re as far as we’re going to get.”
Elissa said she hears this repeated often in Dover. “We hear that a lot. ‘We need young families, younger workers and young professionals to move in and we need to house this young family type’”.
Elissa has heard the same call in the Merrimack Valley. “I think about Dean Kamen’s new ARMI project in Manchester. We may not get Amazon, but we have ARMI. He’s making this big investment and working with major institutions like UNH – shouldn’t we address the housing needed for this workforce?”
But building anything in southern New Hampshire is expensive, as Elissa described it: “Even if you were to build something at 0 percent interest with the cheapest resources possible and adhere to all regulations and requirements, you still can’t pass on an affordable unit, because of the land values and construction costs in New England.”
So, the next step for developers is to look for public-funding mechanisms. “If you believe that government plays a role in this, then you’re looking for subsidies, any subsidy that’s going to either lower the cost of development, and/or lower the cost of rent. And then you’re going to pass those savings on to the tenant. And that’s how it’s going to become more affordable,” she says.
The legislature also passed an Accessory Dwelling Unit law in 2016 to allow homeowners to add attached units to their homes by right or special exception. Municipalities across the state, including Portsmouth, have adopted new Accessory Dwelling Unit ordinances.
Housing Action NH advocated for that law, with the support of NH Homebuilders, AARP and developmental disabilities advocates. They also advocated for a 2018 Senate bill that would create a state-level housing development appeals board to appeal local planning and zoning board decisions. The idea is to create a faster and less expensive option than taking appeals to superior court.
As architects, we typically to come to these projects after all the decisions have been made by banks, developers, and zoning regulators. As Brian noted, “They’ve already measured the box. Then we’re called to design it. This can feel like design is prioritized last, when in fact it can make or break the look, feel and sense of community for residents and neighbors.”
Nonetheless Elissa answered many questions that come up in our work on a regular basis and gave us a better understanding of the players and the process.
As the state’s demographics shift in a new direction, and the state shows a greater appetite for density, maybe we are finally on the cusp of a shift. As part of our work, we’re making time for exploratory conversations with the Portsmouth Blue Ribbon Committee on Housing, Portsmouth Housing Huddle, the McIntyre Building redevelopment project and other local conversations, to continue our learning process and contribute to more affordable housing solutions on the Seacoast.
[EM1]2018 Data will be released on 6/22