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Housing is a top issue for New Hampshire voters

New housing under construction in New Hampshire, March 2023. Dan Tuohy photo / NHPR
Dan Tuohy
/
NHPR
New housing under construction in New Hampshire, March 2023. Dan Tuohy photo / NHPR

This story was originally produced by the New Hampshire Bulletin, an independent local newsroom that allows NHPR and other outlets to republish its reporting.

Housing is the top issue for residents of New Hampshire, a new survey from the University of New Hampshire found Thursday. And candidates for office have taken notice.

A June round of the Granite State Poll found that 36 percent of responders identified housing as the “most important problem facing New Hampshire” – and it wasn’t close. The housing crisis was followed by education, at 7 percent; immigration, at 6 percent; and jobs and the economy, at 6 percent.

Five percent of respondents were concerned about the cost of living, while taxes, right-leaning politicians, left-leaning politicians, and addiction each commanded 4 percent of those surveyed.

The responses drive home what indicators have long shown: New Hampshire does not have enough housing stock to meet demand, causing home prices to rocket upward and the rental market to tighten. Businesses have struggled to lure employees to the state as a result.

This May, the median home price hit $525,000, according to the New Hampshire Association of Realtors, a nearly 13 percent increase since May 2023, and a big leap from the $300,000 median price in 2019. And the rental vacancy rate has stayed near 0.5 percent, far below the 5 percent target that housing economists say is key to a stable housing market.

And according to some analyses, the state is not building housing fast enough. A 2023 report from New Hampshire Housing, a quasi-state agency, found that the state will need to build 90,000 units by 2040 to meet the demands of the state’s demographic changes. Falling short of that could impede New Hampshire’s growth, the report found.

The issue has spilled into the race for governor. On Thursday, candidates in both parties noted the problem at a forum organized by the National Federation of Independent Business.

Asked about how she would address the state’s workforce shortage as governor, Democratic Executive Councilor Cinde Warmington said the most important hurdle for businesses is housing.

She criticized Gov. Chris Sununu for initially proposing InvestNH – a $100 million program to use federal COVID money to encourage development around the state – without requiring that the units be made affordable. After pushback from Warmington and others on the council, the governor’s Department of Business and Economic Affairs agreed to require that the new developments included a set percentage of workforce housing units.

Warmington also argued that zoning codes across the state were the biggest barrier to an expansion of housing. She said developers have complained that zoning codes can significantly reduce the planned size of a housing project, or can add large costs or delays.

“We need to really incentivize our community to address the zoning issues and that’s going to require changing the narrative around housing,” Warmington said. “It’s not a ‘not in my backyard’ situation; the people you’re keeping out of your backyard are your kids and your grandkids and your teachers and your firefighters and police officers who work in their communities.”

Former U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte also cited housing as an important issue.

“We have to build more housing, we have to make it workforce housing and make sure that people can afford where they live,” the Republican candidate said.

Ayotte said as governor she would make moves to reduce wait times for state permits from the Department of Transportation and the Department of Environmental Services, which she said can also hamper developers. Sometimes driveway permits or environmental reviews can prove to be a drag on a contract even when the local community agrees to it, Ayotte argued.

“What I think we need to do is actually what we do in manufacturing, called the ‘lean process,’ where we look from beginning to end, how long does it actually take to get something done?” Ayotte said. “If you’re a citizen of the state, whether an average person trying to get a driveway permit or somebody trying to build a large housing project, how long does it take?”

Former Senate President Chuck Morse, who is also running for the Republican nomination, agreed.

“Let’s not go into April next year when we have 50 DOT permits that aren’t moving forward and we’re not building housing in New Hampshire,” he said. “That’s senseless.”

Morse also pointed to driveway permits – which are issued by the Department of Transportation to developers seeking to add driveways to existing roads – as major barriers, and said in some cases those permits can add a year onto the development time. “We can’t let that happen in our state – we’re too great for that,” he said.

The Legislature recently sent House Bill 1202 to Gov. Chris Sununu’s desk, which would give the department up to 60 days to deny a driveway permit or else require approval.

Morse also said that state grant programs to help cities and towns with water remediation would help create more housing and lead to more density.

Former Manchester Mayor Joyce Craig, who is competing with Warmington in the Democratic primary, did not attend Thursday’s debate. But when she filed for governor June 14, she told reporters she would be in favor of pushing to convert underutilized buildings into housing across the state – from abandoned office space to historic structures.

“We need a governor who will work with our local communities to ensure we’re doing everything we can to build more affordable housing,” Craig said.

Those who are entrenched in the fight for expanding housing say that this campaign season is a key time for lawmakers in both parties to propose housing solutions to voters – and follow through on them.

“The cost of housing is just so extreme that an 18-year-old trying to move out and move into that same community is oftentimes not able to find any housing that would be affordable for them,” said Rep. Josh Yokela, a Fremont Republican who has sponsored bills to expand housing. “They have to move out of that town, maybe to a city like Manchester or Nashua, or possibly even out of the state to be able to afford to move out of their parents’ homes.”

Yet even if many Granite Staters agree that the lack of housing is an issue, there can often be resistance about broad changes that would increase housing availability in local communities – the essence of the “not in my backyard” mentality, Yokela said. Political candidates are going to need to find a way to bring those voters aboard, he said.

“I think it will be a discussion between the people that have liked their community the way that it is, that already own their home, and those trying to find housing,” he said. “… We don’t want these towns to just turn into country clubs.”

Elissa Margolin, executive director of Housing Action New Hampshire, said housing advocates should also raise the issue from the perspective of seniors this election season. This year, Housing Action New Hampshire partnered with AARP of New Hampshire to help lobby lawmakers on certain housing bills, noting that a lack of housing also squeezes residents at retirement age or older, who are looking for smaller and more affordable options.

Margolin says she wants to see that partnership continue – especially to help defend bills against opposition from local residents who don’t want to see zoning codes overridden and are against increasing density.

“Perhaps we need to show (lawmakers) the face of who is going to benefit, so that when they get that local pushback, they know who they’re helping,” Margolin said. “And I think AARP and the disability community will be powerful advocates moving forward.”

New Hampshire Bulletin is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network 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: info@newhampshirebulletin.com. Follow New Hampshire Bulletin on Facebook and X.

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