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How land-use zoning has reinforced inequalities in Manchester for over a century

The legacy of the Amoskeag Manufacturing Company is present both in the mill buildings lining the highway in Manchester and in the zoning laws that reinforce the housing crisis in the city.
Allegra Boverman
Granite State News Collaborative
The legacy of the Amoskeag Manufacturing Company is present both in the mill buildings lining the highway in Manchester and in the zoning laws that reinforce the housing crisis in the city.

New Hampshire’s current housing crisis has been a long time in the making. A new series from NHPR and the Granite State News Collaborative tells the story of how exclusionary zoning laws and discriminatory housing policies have led to where we are today. It’s called Invisible Walls.

NHPR’s Morning Edition host Rick Ganley spoke with Johnny Bassett, a reporter for the Granite State News Collaborative, about his reporting on Manchester, and what’s led to economic and racial segregation within the city.


Rick Ganley: Can you explain or give us a breakdown, I should say, of some of the ongoing issues with affordable housing in Manchester as of today? You talked with folks who have felt really confined to the city center when looking for a place to live. What did they have to say?

Johnny Bassett: Yeah. So the housing crisis is affecting people all over the state for sure, and people all over Manchester at every economic level and in all neighborhoods of the city. And we know that from the mayor's report. Lots of people are talking about it. But when I talked to Anthony Harris, who's the guy that we feature in the story, he told me about how he and his partner have been really struggling to get out of center city. And Center City is broadly defined, but it's kind of the area around City Hall. And so what Anthony told us was that at the beginning of the pandemic, if we can remember that at this point, he and his girlfriend were homeless. And so they were starting the apartment search and they looked all over. They only had a budget, though, of about $1,000, and they were looking for a two or three bedroom apartment. They couldn't find anything in the city for that price. They wanted to live outside of Center City. They could find nothing there, even when they dropped it to a one bedroom. And ultimately, they couldn't even find a two or three bedroom in center city. So they ended up sharing an apartment in center city with a roommate, and now they're saving up and trying to get out. They told me that they've just really struggled to find any affordable housing outside of this one pocket of the city, and so we wanted to figure out why that was.

Rick Ganley: And in your reporting, you show how today's housing problems in Manchester are rooted in history going back to over a century, in fact. Can you tell us about the Amoskeag Manufacturing Company and the impact that its policies around worker housing have had on the city? I mean, it was really a company town, wasn't it?

Johnny Bassett: It was a company town. So if you've ever driven through Manchester and you look off of the highway, you'd see all those brick buildings right along the river. That's the legacy of the Amoskeag Company. Those buildings were built by Amoskeag to power these mills. And so what we found in this history was that the Amoskeag Company created this inequality that we see in the city, the income inequality where the poorest residents are all in center city and then the wealthier residents are in the suburbs and outside. And then zoning reinforced that segregation that Amoskeag had created.

So the way that Amoskeag created this was that they made careful choices about where they let different workers live in the city. So skilled workers, mostly Americans, but skilled workers they recruited from anywhere. They offered company built housing very close to the mills. But unskilled workers, which they brought in from all over Europe and from Canada. We have a lot of French Canadians in Manchester, as we know. The unskilled workers were not allowed in that premium housing. They were left to find their own housing that was within walking distance of the mills. And that's all center city today. So that's where all the unskilled workers lived. That was an explicit policy that Amoskeag had because they wanted to help keep the workers divided. They didn't want unionization. And by the 30s, when Amoskeag was failing, then the city was already heavily ethnically segregated. And that's when zoning stepped in to reinforce that segregation that Amoskeag had put in place.

Rick Ganley: And so you're saying that local zoning policies, you know, present that roadblock now toward building or providing more affordable housing. It just reinforces, you know, what started long ago with Amoskeag. How did Manchester zoning laws reinforce some of those actions?

Johnny Bassett: Yeah. So what zoning does is it essentially set a bunch of rules about what can be built and where it can be built. So that's usually a really great thing, because it means that a chemical factory can't get built next to an elementary school or a big, sprawling mansion can't get built in the middle of a budding downtown. But when you put these laws in, it means that the city is making intentional choices about what can be built where. And it means that in the places that they've reserved for single family housing, which is very expensive, it means that people on the bottom end of the economic ladder, they can't afford to live in those areas.

The areas that the city does set aside for higher density housing, usually multifamily housing, that's where folks who need the cheapest housing, the most affordable housing, that's where they're going to end up living. So when I say that the zoning reinforced this, what I mean is that the city government put down these walls in the city that determined where the wealthiest were going to live and where the poorest were going to live by determining what kind of houses could be built in different areas. And that pattern, unfortunately, has not changed very much over the last hundred years. And that's what we found when we looked at the zoning maps going back to 1927 when zoning began in Manchester.

Rick Ganley: And there are a lot of folks, Johnny, working to provide more affordable housing, both on the local and the state level. What have been the barriers to undoing these effects of these long standing policies and zoning laws?

Johnny Bassett: That's a great question, Rick, and that's something that we're looking into next. Because what we tried to do in this story was just establish the history and establish this pattern to show that this is not an accident that we have these inequalities in Manchester. And it's not an accident that the housing crisis is affecting people in the way that it does. So what we're really looking forward to in the future is talking more to the housing experts and to city officials who are right now in the middle of rewriting these zoning laws and figuring out what they think the barriers are to maybe tweaking these zoning laws to allow affordable housing to spread more broadly uplifting the city. And we're looking at other cities that have dealt with similar problems to see if there are solutions there as well.

Mary McIntyre is a senior producer at NHPR.
For many radio listeners throughout New Hampshire, Rick Ganley is the first voice they hear each weekday morning, bringing them up to speed on news developments overnight and starting their day off with the latest information.
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