The head of the New Hampshire Housing Finance Authority does not see an end to the state’s affordable housing crisis any time soon.
Speaking on The Exchange, Dean Christon said the vacancy rate, particularly when it comes to rentals in multi-family homes, is the lowest in the region, hovering at or below 1 %.
(You can hear the full conversation, here. Excerpts in this story have been edited slightly for clarity.)
That's not good news for people seeking affordable living situations, and Christon says certain local policies have played a role in limiting the kind of development -- multifamily buildings or clusters of smaller homes -- that can alleviate the problem.
“We need to continue to work both at the state and local level at how we can encourage communities to be more flexible to identify ways that they can work with the development community -- both nonprofit and for profit -- to build less expensive units, to build smaller housing, or what people refer to as compact development models that really reduce the cost of housing but also speak to changing consumer tastes.”
Christon said more people are looking for walkable communities in addition to affordable homes, and there's been some progress on this in the southern part of the state. "People want to be able to ride their bike somewhere; they don't want to drive an hour or two hours to work or to obtain services all the time. So these are things that really require fundamental changes in approaches at the local level in New Hampshire, given the way we do things, and that takes time and can be very painful."
Michael Claflin, executive director of Affordable Housing and Education Development (AHEAD), said in rural areas, zoning often still allows just one house on a sizeable piece of land, limiting options for people seeking homes they can afford.
"There is this romantic idea that every house should be built on a 5-acre lot and so that needs to be changed," he said. "If some of that could be refined and changed to allow for multi-family developments or clusters of buildings, that would go a long way towards trying to help."
A changing definition of what "affordable housing" means?
Dean Christon: "The term affordable housing is the notion that people should not pay more than 30 % of their income for their housing -- and that's a federal standard that was developed a long time ago; it's based on the idea that people have other things they need to pay for in their lives and that if they're paying more than 30 % of their income for their housing, then they may not be able to pay for all those other things.
So, if the median rent is over $1300, then you need to have a household income of over $50,000 in order to hit that standard. And that becomes very challenging -- particularly for entry level workers in many of our businesses and communities around the state.
Most people are paying more than 30% of their income on housing, Christon said.
If you're working full time and earning minimum wage and you can't afford housing and that nonprofit organization has to step in to help you, what you're doing is you're subsidizing the employer who's not paying enough. And if you raise the basic minimum wage to an affordable point, the employer would have to pay enough for people to afford housing. -- Joshua
What is the nonprofit organization's role in addressing the need for affordable housing?
Rosemary Heard, President and CEO of CATCH Neighborhood Housing: "I think what sets us apart is our ability to leverage programs that were designed to further the development of affordable housing. The Low Income Housing Tax Credit is a great example of a program that has a huge impact in New Hampshire; this is a program that NHHFA overseas and it has allowed us to leverage $32 million in equity to develop properties.
The other thing that maybe sets us apart is that, because of our mission and vision, we are there after the property is developed. We are very focused on the resident. It's not just about the bricks and mortar. We want to ensure that we have residents who are successful and who are able to manage their day-to-day lives and pay their rent.
We may be nonprofit organizations but we are also nonprofit enterprises. So we have an obligation to keep our doors open for other people. And it is incumbent upon us to make sure that people are skilled in areas of financial fitness and being able to pay that rent every month, albeit a real hardship on a lot of folks."
We have a lot of debt as a family -- we have tractor payments, car payments, a student loan payment that is bigger than our mortgage on the house we own. So we're constrained by all that debt. That's about 70 percent of our income. And then the other side of it is the costs that I incur. I buy houses out of foreclosure, fix them up myself, but I have taxes which are very high and energy bills to pay. And then the cost of materials is sky high -- a piece of plywood is 50 bucks. It's not affordable for me as a landlord to provide affordable housing. I'd like to have lower rent but quite frankly I can't afford it. -- Ian, who owns four rental properties.
Meanwhile, as Rosemary sees it, the state's demographics may end up accelerating the kinds of changes in zoning laws that will encourage more affordable housing.
"As our state ages, people want to be closer together -- to be able to have five or 10 tiny homes facing inward on a beautiful garden courtyard -- that's something we would all like to have in our senior years," Heard said. "So I think the aging of New Hampshire is going to force this issue a little bit and look at how we how we do development."