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How hard is it to build more housing in NH? A new tool puts a spotlight on zoning rules

Paul Cuno-Booth
Antrim, pictured above, is primarily zoned for one- or two-family housing, according to the New Hampshire Zoning Atlas.

This story was originally produced by the Concord Monitor. NHPR is republishing it in partnership with the Granite State News Collaborative.

An affordable, manageable starter home in New Hampshire can come in many different shapes and sizes – a small single-family home, an accessory dwelling unit on an existing lot, a manufactured home, or even a tiny house, on a small tract of land.

However, due to the discrepancy of zoning codes and ordinances statewide, some of these housing options are practically off the table in certain communities.

A new tool from researchers at Saint Anselm College, the New Hampshire Zoning Atlas, provides an online catalog of housing-related zoning regulations in the state that makes it easier to distinguish welcoming communities from restrictive ones.

Explore the New Hampshire Zoning Atlas here.

Local zoning codes determine how many houses can go where, the minimum size of lots, and other regulations, like setback distances that are used to determine the allowable construction area.

But often, these requirements are spelled out in complex jargon. Not to mention that they differ from town to town.

“Zoning is extremely complicated. It changes from one community to the next. It’s not consistent,” said Max Latona, the executive director for the Center for Ethics and Society at Saint Anselm. “It’s often put together in a very piecemeal fashion by our communities over time.”

The Zoning Atlas pieces together local regulations in a comprehensive data set. It comes from 23,000 pages of zoning ordinances, and in doing so, the research provides much-needed context to New Hampshire’s housing shortage – where 23,500 units are needed to meet current demand.

This number grows across decades as well. By 2030, the state is expected to need 60,000 units. By 2040, that figure grows to 90,000, according to a new report from New Hampshire Housing.

To meet the urgent need of housing there’s an easy solution – build more units. But zoning regulations can prove to be a hurdle to anything other than traditional single-family construction.

“We need to do more housing production. That doesn’t mean that any community needs to be flooded with housing development, but we need modest increases in housing production throughout the state in each community,” said Ben Frost, the deputy executive director and chief legal officer of New Hampshire Housing.

In New Hampshire, town-by-town regulations make it particularly hard to build single-family homes on lots that are smaller than one acre in size. Construction is allowed on less than an acre in just 16% of all the state land that is considered buildable, according to findings from the Zoning Atlas.

Building two-family homes, or duplexes, are even more of a challenge. The state has the least amount of land zoned that accommodates two-family homes on lots less than an acre.

In fact, in 70 jurisdictions, two-family homes are outright prohibited.

But these regulations contradict the state guidance on multifamily homes, which can include five or more units. In 2008, the state passed a Workforce Housing Law, which required cities and towns to ensure there was an opportunity for affordable and workforce housing, including identifying areas where five-plus unit, multi-family structures could be built.

“In some communities, it’s actually easier to develop a five-plus unit building than it is a duplex. Because municipalities respond to what the legislature tells them to do, and some will do the bare minimum,” said Frost.

Another state law is also left up to interpretation by local zoning ordinances – accessory dwelling units.

In 2017, the state mandated that accessory dwelling units be permitted in every community. But with other requirements, like parking and expensive approval processes, it became nearly impossible in some communities for these structures to take shape.

“The legislature adopted the accessory dwelling unit law, it is a limitation on how municipalities can exercise their zoning power. But it also has a lot of flexibility in it,” said Frost. “A lot of municipalities… use that flexibility to make accessory dwelling unit development practically infeasible.”

With the need for increased housing production, the atlas now can guide conversations about development, economic opportunity and density, for everyone from planners to policy makers, said Frost.

“Without affordable places to live, new employees and employers will look elsewhere,” he said. “The Zoning Atlas shows how zoning could be changed to make the state and its communities more welcoming to housing, therefore improving our vibrancy and ability to flourish economically.”

These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information

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