New Hampshire House bill would encourage ‘missing middle’ housing
Measure would ‘relegalize’ buildings with up to four units
It seems like everybody is talking these days about the “missing middle” when it comes to affordable housing, but Rep. Ivy Vann, D-Peterborough, is trying to do something about it.
That something is House Bill 1177, or her “four-plex-is-a-house bill,” an attempt to revive construction of duplexes, triple-deckers and quads by requiring that municipalities allow up to four-unit apartment buildings in areas that already have municipal water and sewer.
“What we have is a lot of single-family and a lot of large apartment complexes and nothing in the middle,” Vann told the House Municipal and County Government Committee on Monday. She later went on to say that most municipalities do have such buildings – an old house broken up into apartments – but they are scarce, since they are excluded by current zoning. In Nashua, for instance, zoning excludes them from about three quarters of the city.
“We’re frozen these in place, so we can’t change whatever there is now. What this bill would do is relegalize four units. Only four. That’s a house. The Federal Housing Administration thinks it’s a house. It’s house-sized.”
She said she and other people have been trying to change zoning “one town at a time,” but such efforts have been unsuccessful, so her bill would be “preemptive zoning,” a statewide law that would require such houses to be allowed, although not in areas that have had issues with septic systems and wells with limited groundwater. And apartment buildings would have to follow all local regulations that apply to other houses, such as setbacks. She plans to amend the bill to allow per-unit rules for on premise parking,
‘My kids want that’
Vann said her bill would allow older people like herself to break up a home into apartments, without going through a variance, to encourage aging in place.
“We don’t have enough things like that where I can walk to the corner store and buy a quart of milk or a child could ride a bicycle to get a popsicle and get home before it melts. We don’t have enough of that and that makes places like that really, really expensive. People my age want that. My kids want that.”
Lily Beyer of Portsmouth, a structural engineer a decade out of college, works on developing those “big 200-apartment buildings,” but for the last eight years she has rented an apartment in a house from the owner who lives on the other side and another tenant who lives downstairs.
“People like me want to live stumbling-home-from-the-bar distance. We want to live walk-to-the-coffeeshop-and-see-my-friends distance. We want to live in town,” she said. “But people like my friends can’t afford to do it. We don’t want to live in those big buildings. That’s what I work on, but that’s not where I want to live.”
Almost all of those who testified supported the bill, including Chet Clem, president of Lyme Properties, “an aspiring middle housing developer” that is “prohibited from developing” such units in Lebanon. “I can build a house or a 125-unit apartment building, but can’t do anything in the middle,” he said, though he spent months trying, “before I got shot down,” to “create the kind of housing that people coming into my office tell me what they want.” He said we have “unintentionally zoned out what has worked for our community. It’s not new and mysterious. It’s been there for decades.”
The bill also had the support of Will Stewart, executive director of Stay Work Play.
“We need more young people, but the biggest barrier is housing affordability,” he said. “We need more housing options. Let the property owners have more rights on their own property.”
The bill also earned the support of the Mercatus Center at George Mason University in Virginia, a free-market think tank, for that very reason, because it “promotes property rights.”
But it didn’t have the support of the NH Municipal Association.
“It’s a statewide zoning mandate, and we oppose statewide zoning mandates,” said Natch Greyes, the association’s government affairs counsel. “We support local control” arguing that each community must deal with these problems as they see fit.
When the bill’s co-sponsor, Rep. Latha Mangipudi, D-Nashua, asked Greyes, “What is the solution in order to address this crisis, this acute housing shortage?”
“I don’t have a solution,” he said. But he added he was willing to work with municipalities to come up with one.