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'A deep need’: NH lawmakers propose slew of 2024 bills to address housing shortages

New home construction
Dan Tuohy

For many, the conclusion has become unavoidable: New Hampshire’s economy is being held back by a lack of affordable housing.

State lawmakers have been reluctant to act. Many see the effort to overhaul local zoning ordinances as an improper use of state power against local control. But as bipartisan concern over housing grows, more representatives and senators appear interested in legislation. And the number of housing-related bills filed for next year’s session is notable, observers say.

“This is by far the most housing-related pieces of legislation that we’ve seen filed in a single session before,” said Nick Taylor, executive director of the Workforce Housing Coalition of the Greater Seacoast. “And I think that in and of itself speaks to the deep need that legislators are hearing from their constituents, whether it’s the businesses that need more workers, seniors who are looking to stay in their homes, younger families looking to buy their first home, or renters who are struggling with increased prices.”

Here are some of the housing bills to watch next session.

A new right to an accessory dwelling unit

House lawmakers are once again attempting to expand homeowners’ ability to convert their homes into additional housing units. This time, they’re focusing on the accessory dwelling unit.

House Bill 1291 would permit homeowners to create two accessory dwelling units on their properties, either as attached units or detached units. And it would let them create the first of those units “by right,” meaning they would not need a special approval from their town planning board.

The addition would still be subject to the same setback, aesthetic, and design review requirements as the rest of the property. But cities and towns would not be able to single out ADUs – they would be barred from imposing any regulations on ADUs that did not also apply to single-family dwellings. And they would be able to require only one additional parking spot per each new bedroom created.

Sponsored by Rep. Ellen Read, a Newmarket Democrat, the bill comes seven years after then-Gov. Maggie Hassan signed a law allowing one accessory dwelling unit per property. But housing advocates say that law has not been as successful as was hoped due to onerous restrictions some towns have placed on parking requirements, which advocates say has made ADUs there practically infeasible.

The bill has bipartisan sponsorship from all 10 of the members of the newly formed House Special Committee on Housing.

Rep. Joe Alexander, a Goffstown Republican and the chairman of the special housing committee, calls the idea “gentle density.”

“We’re looking at hopefully trying to create an environment where you can have an elderly person trying to downsize or a college student fresh out of college trying to buy their first home instead of renting,” he said.

Yet prior attempts have not had overwhelming political support. In past years, some representatives have pushed for a “fourplex” bill allowing up to four units to be created by right on any property, even those in single-family housing zones. But those attempts have typically failed to pass the full House, after pushback from others who say it will erode local control over neighborhood density.

This year, after months of workshopping the bill, Alexander says he hopes there will be greater buy-in. “We’re not gonna overhaul single-family neighborhoods,” he said. “I don’t think that’s anybody’s intention.”

The ‘HOMEnibus’ bill

Among 2024’s most ambitious efforts will be the “HOMEnibus,” Sen. Rebecca Perkins Kwoka’s attempt to pass a number of zoning-related law requirements into state statute.

The bill, Senate Bill 538, includes some provisions that would enable towns to adopt the policies and others that would require towns to take up policies.

For instance, cities and towns would be empowered to provide tax relief to incentivize converting office space to residential use. They would also be allowed to propose a warrant at town meeting that would allow the select board to make changes to the zoning code. Currently, towns that don’t have town councils are not able to do so and may pass zoning ordinance changes only once a year at town meeting.

The bill would also allow cities and towns to create “inclusionary zoning” districts and require that all new housing within those districts contain a certain percentage of workforce or affordable housing. Under current law, cities and towns may provide incentives for developers to include affordable housing, but they may not require that developers include it.

But beyond those voluntary measures, SB 538 would also impose some requirements on cities and towns that would prevent them from blocking certain developments.

The bill would enable developers to propose alternative parking arrangements to existing parking requirements for new housing units. For instance, the bill states, developers could lease parking spaces from nearby businesses if the parking around their proposed development is too limited, or they could utilize ride share services or public transportation options to bring residents to parking spaces farther away. Under the bill, a planning board would have to accept one of these alternative parking proposals, as long as the applicant can demonstrate that it “will meet the parking demand.”

The bill would also require cities and towns to change how they approach sewage requirements for properties that are not connected to municipal sewer lines. Presently, municipalities can pass any minimum lot size requirements they want to account for the lack of sewers. But SB 238 requires that they adhere to the Department of Environmental Services’ minimum lot size requirements for individual sewage systems – and no larger.

“What we are trying to do here is to use science and soil types to establish minimum lot sizes instead of arbitrary square footage,” Perkins Kwoka explained in an interview.

Perkins Kwoka, a Portsmouth Democrat, said that the inclusionary zoning changes have been requested by Portsmouth and other municipalities in recent years as a way to strengthen affordable housing development.

And she said the opt-in tax relief provision would help cities and towns incentivize transitions to walkable cities, where downtown apartment buildings and businesses can coexist side by side. By providing financial relief to developers, tenants can benefit, she argued.

“The hope is that by lowering the overall cost of the project, that those savings can be passed on to the end user, which of course is our residents that desperately need housing,” she said.

An expansion of housing appeals

New Hampshire’s Housing Appeals Board has existed since 2020, giving both property owners and developers the means to contest a decision by local planning and zoning boards with a higher authority. Currently, the board can review decisions by planning boards, boards of adjustment, historic district commissions, conservation commissions, and others.

For those looking to appeal, the board serves as an alternative to superior court, though its decisions can be appealed to the state Supreme Court.

Alexander is pushing to expand that board’s authority and provide it the ability to review state agencies’ decisions. House Bill 1602 would allow the board to review state agency permitting decisions and licenses that are “applicable to housing and housing developments.”

“I want to expand options for people that have violations or perceived violations of their property rights,” Alexander said. If there is an egregious code preventing residents from altering their property, “they should be able to appeal it kind of in a faster way than going to court,” he said.

More money to affordable housing

Republican Sen. Dan Innis is spearheading a bill that would devote more state tax revenue to affordable housing.

Senate Bill 454 would double the amount of real estate transfer tax money the state puts into affordable housing development. Currently, the first $5 million of that tax must go to New Hampshire Housing’s affordable housing fund every year; Innis’ bill would double that to $10 million.

The real estate transfer tax has done exceptionally well in recent years, as average home prices in the state have jumped up to record highs amid a market shortage.

Those same conditions have hurt affordability, Taylor noted; devoting the revenue proceeds to improve housing options is only fair, he argued.

“It’s not something that’s going to be solved in the next year or two,” he said. “We need to make sure that this is a long-term investment that we’re making in our communities.”

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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