You’d have to be dense not to see the housing problem facing the Lakes Region and the state, and how it hinders economic growth.
It is partly a matter of demand far outstripping the supply of available apartments and affordable single-family homes.
“As of the summer of 2019, New Hampshire’s vacancy rate for two bedroom apartments has fallen below 1% in virtually every county in the State and the inventory of homes for sale is near record lows,” according to a report released last fall by a housing task force put together by Gov. Chris Sununu.
While the Lakes Region doesn’t have the highest housing prices in the state, homes in the area are scarce and — if you can even find a place — expensive.
As The Laconia Daily Sun’s Rick Green reported last Saturday, the New Hampshire Housing Finance Authority said in July that the statewide median gross rent for a 2-bedroom unit in 2019 was $1,387, with Belknap County at $1,057. Average utility costs for such an apartment in the county are $253.
Where a shortage of affordable housing was once a problem largely confined to people on the lower end of the income spectrum, middle class workers are now being squeezed.
“As a single mother with no financial help, it’s a daunting task,” wrote Jennifer Hunter Doris of Gilford on the Daily Sun’s Facebook page. “I have a decent job and can’t afford $1,200 plus electric, heat, food, car, insurance, student loans and clothing and activities for my child. Every month is a struggle. Everything increases in price except my paycheck.”
That squeeze also puts pressure on employers looking to fill workforce vacancies.
“Quite simply, if that workforce has no adequate housing choices, the retention and recruitment of additional workforce could be threatened,” the governor’s task force wrote.
We won’t quibble over “could be,” because we think that horse left the barn long ago, but the challenge is not just one of supply and demand, but also of attitude, market forces and the growing chasm between the haves and have-nots.
Former Laconia Mayor Ed Engler said some of the roots of the housing shortage go back to attitudes that were cemented during the boom years of the 1980s, when New Hampshire saw an influx of Massachusetts residents moving to New Hampshire for jobs and the state’s favorable tax structure. A fear of being overrun prompted cities and towns to adopt zoning requirements that were restrictive if not outright exclusionary. Residents worried that new homes meant more children, which would translate into greater school costs and higher taxes. Some developers, even to this day, threaten to build homes if their non-residential developments are rejected by local regulatory boards, Engler said.
Russ Thibeault, president of Applied Economic Research in Laconia, said in a 2019 New Hampshire Housing Finance Authority report that some people wrongly believe that every occupied housing unit in the state adds two children. The actual number, he said, is 0.33 children per occupied unit. In other words, it takes three housing units to add just one child to a school district.
Even if it were higher, with the state facing slow growth, an aging population and low birth rates, some communities would be well-advised to encourage residential growth, Thibault said. “Fear of rising enrollment is passé for nearly every school district in the state. It is a legacy concern, dating back to the last period of rising enrollment, nearly 30 years ago.”
The zoning driven by that fear called for low-density developments characterized by large minimum lot sizes. It put a premium on preserving green space and — being honest — was designed to keep the “riff-raff” out of affluent communities.
Times and needs have changed. We need regulations that encourage higher-density housing, and we need cities and towns to work with developers on that front, because current densities have proven themselves inadequate to serve the needs of the housing and workforce markets.
Cities and towns also need to consider density in the context of the infrastructure — water and sewer lines and roads — needed to support development.
“You can’t ask a developer to run water lines, streets and sewer if you are only going to allow them to build one house every two acres,” Engler said. “Then you are talking about million-dollar houses and nothing else.”
The Lakes Region already has plenty of those. Sure, they help keep taxes low in many affluent communities, but they don’t address the housing needs of everyday workers or the businesses that are struggling to fill vacancies.
“We need a more vibrant economy to lift all the boats so that we have significantly fewer poor people,” Engler added, summing up the problem, “but we can’t have a more dynamic economy without population growth and we can’t do that without more houses.”