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An effort to add more workforce housing in N.H. loses steam at the State House

A row of grey townhomes in Portsmouth under construction
Dan Tuohy
The proposed housing reforms ran into early skepticism from House Republicans, many of whom opposed certain mandates in the bill for town planning and zoning boards.

One week of negotiations later, State House lawmakers are on their way to getting their new parking garage. But a workforce housing package favored by Gov. Chris Sununu and affordable housing advocates is all but defeated.

A series of committee of conference meetings over the legislative parking garage bill last week saw House and Senate Republicans debating how much to add and how much to take away.

House leadership preferred that the bill, which includes $9.35 million in federal money to help design, engineer, and build a 450-spot garage closer to the State House, be left unchanged. Senate Republicans saw it as an opportunity to force negotiations over unrelated additions.

Here’s what remains – and doesn’t – of House Bill 1661, the Legislature’s omnibus package of the year.

Deep cuts to housing reform

After a series of starts and stops, a key bill to speed up workforce housing development has failed to advance in full.

Promoted by Sununu before lawmakers during his February State of the State address, Senate Bill 400 was presented as a “toolbox” to allow New Hampshire towns and cities to approve more developments.

Housing advocates praised the bill, noting the state’s unusually low inventory of available housing, unprecedented home prices, and skyrocketing rents.

But the bill ran into early skepticism from House Republicans, many of whom opposed certain mandates in the bill for town planning and zoning boards. While the standalone bill cleared the Senate, it was tabled by the House weeks later, cutting off debate and stopping any momentum.

HB 1661 was Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley’s chance to resurrect the bill. Bradley, a Wolfeboro Republican, helped add the language to the parking garage bill earlier in May, ensuring it could serve as a bargaining chip in the final days of the session.

In the end, little of it survived negotiations.

To get to a final agreement, House and Senate negotiators removed the language to automatically allow towns and cities to construct workforce housing in economic development and revitalization districts. Under the new language, towns and cities may do so only if they approve a procedure at town meeting or in municipal elections.

Negotiators took out a provision that would allow towns to extend local tax breaks for workforce housing developments; the bill would authorize the tax breaks to extend up to eight years, rather than the current four-year cap

They also struck language that would have barred towns from adding age restrictions to workforce housing. And they eliminated a mandate that towns treat workforce housing with the same zoning requirements as housing for older people, a proposal that would have meant towns had to provide the same reduced lot size, expedited approval processes, and incentives to workforce housing projects.

But not all of SB 400 was wiped out. The committee of conference kept in a requirement that local land use boards provide written findings of fact explaining why certain housing projects are rejected – a provision housing advocates say could reduce the number of subjective decisions.

The committee kept in a provision requiring zoning boards of adjustment to make decisions on applications within 90 days of receiving them.

It also preserved the creation of a statewide training program for local land use board members, who may opt into a course related to the “processes, procedures, regulations, and statutes related to the board on which the member serves.”

Areas of consensus

Though only a fraction of the high-profile workforce housing bill moves forward, many of the pieces proposed by the Senate had better luck.

The new bill contains a pilot program to allow the Department of Health and Human Services to provide services to people aged 18-21 with developmental disabilities who are enrolled in public high school. That pilot program will be limited to just 20 students and is intended to provide services that are no longer covered by local school districts due to a student’s age.

HB 1661 creates “kinship care homes,” a special type of foster home license in which people can be approved to take care of up to six children that they are connected to – whether by relation or by personal history.

It authorizes DHHS to apply for a federal Medicaid waiver to allow family caregivers to serve as personal care attendants under the state’s Medicaid program, and devotes $2.4 million to increase Medicaid reimbursement rates for hospital birthing services.

It also establishes new and detailed procedures for the discharge of children from child care agencies.

One provision advocated by Senate Republicans will not make it in the final bill. That amendment would have lifted the annual requirement that DHHS report to lawmakers on the amount of Medicaid dollars that go to family planning services such as Planned Parenthood. The committee struck that; the reports will continue.

A parking garage intact

House lawmakers left negotiations with the parking garage project unchanged.

The $9.4 million in the bill – the first tranche in what is expected to be a $30 million project – will allow the Department of Administrative Services to design plans to demolish the Department of Justice building near the Legislative Office Building in Concord, as well as the current Storrs Street parking garage. The money includes $1.1 million to demolish the Department of Justice building, another $1.2 million to move the department, $3.75 million in “fit-up” costs for the department, and $1.2 million in annual lease costs for its new building. The money is expected to come out of New Hampshire’s remaining recovery money from the COVID-19 American Rescue Plan Act of 2021.

The final, 78-section bill, which Senate and House negotiators put their signatures to Thursday, now heads to the full House and Senate for votes on May 26.

New Hampshire Bulletin is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. New Hampshire Bulletin maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Dana Wormald for questions: Follow New Hampshire Bulletin on Facebook and Twitter.

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