‘New Hampshire’s housing crisis is a human rights issue’
Housing Action NH director ties equity and access to state’s housing plight
As home prices continue to soar and the availability of affordable housing dwindles, many individuals and families are struggling to find a place to call home in the Granite State. For Elissa Margolin, director of Housing Action NH, the reason New Hampshire has a housing crisis is the housing shortage, increasing demand, low supply and skyrocketing prices:
“According to the most recent statewide housing needs assessment, New Hampshire has a current shortage of 23,500 housing units and will need to build 60,000 housing units by the end of 2030. The lack of housing has caused workforce shortages in every industry and an increase in homelessness,” she said in an interview with the NH Center for Justice & Equity.
This creates an issue of equity around access to a home, she said.
“It’s depressing to acknowledge something as basic as living in a home is hard to access. The market has become so hostile that if you are anywhere from slightly above area median income to extremely low income, you’re going to struggle in this market.
The rental market, in particular, is very tight. According to the NH Housing Finance Authority’s most recent Residential Rental Cost Survey, “the overall vacancy rate is at .05 percent — far too low to support a functional market. This means that if 10 percent of the state’s lower-income renters wanted to move — about 7,400 renters — they would have about 350 units from which to choose without overpaying. These renters would have about a 5 percent chance of finding an affordable, vacant unit.”
Practically, this means that many low-income families are either paying an unsustainable amount of their income towards housing or are forced to live in overcrowded or substandard conditions. In extreme cases, they’re pushed towards homelessness.
‘Prioritize policy solutions’
Housing Action New Hampshire is a policy and advocacy organization focused on improving state and federal policies for preserving and developing affordable housing. Since its founding in 2009, Housing Action NH has successfully secured appropriations for the Affordable Housing Fund and InvestNH, helped pass accessory dwelling unit legislation, created the Housing Appeals Board, created a new Medicaid benefit for supportive housing services, and increased funding for homeless services.
“We have some real opportunities in the Legislature this year and unprecedented political will, which makes me optimistic about our state’s ability to address the problem,” said Margolin.
One of the bills Housing Action NH is working on is Senate Bill 145, which would establish a Housing Champion program that includes technical assistance and grants for municipalities who are ready to say “yes in my backyard.” The bill has been passed in the Senate and has received support from the business community and the municipal association.
Another priority is Senate Bill 231, which is a comprehensive package of funding to address the housing shortage. This includes funding for the Affordable Housing Fund, InvestNH, a new historic housing tax credit, as well as funding to address the homelessness crisis. This bill also received a lot of bipartisan support in the Senate.
Margolin said even tried-and-true tools like Section 8 are not as effective as they should be in this market. The Housing Choice Vouchers that were designed to give tenants more mobility and choice in the market are not only difficult to access, but difficult to use. With the shortage of available homes, landlords are declining tenant applicants who want to support their rental costs with a voucher. And since New Hampshire has not passed a “source of income protection law,” landlords can legally decline to rent to voucher holders. In fact, it’s currently legal in New Hampshire to advertise a rental listing with the caveat that “Section 8 need not apply.” And although housing advocates continue to ask policymakers to address the issue, the New Hampshire legislature has rejected “source of income” bills again and again.
“We need to prioritize policy solutions that make homes accessible for everyone. It’s almost cruel to ask a family to stay on the waitlist, say five to eight years, to secure a voucher only to send them out to a market that won’t accept it. So we need to ask ourselves what we can do to incentivize the rental market to make use of this important tool.
According to Margolin, equitable zoning is key to address the housing crisis.
“A lot of our country’s current challenges in housing date back to the discriminatory practices of redlining,” she said.
The quest to improve local zoning to allow for more affordable housing development is starting to gain momentum in New Hampshire. In fact, a new zoning atlas project developed by the Center for Ethics at Saint Anselm College, is due for release later this month.
The New Hampshire Zoning Atlas is a collaborative project to research, catalog, digitize and graphically display all of New Hampshire’s zoning regulations, community-by-community, district-by-district. Proponents see this project as having the potential to be a valuable tool for researchers, policy-makers, planners, community leaders, builders and developers, advocates, and others to understand New Hampshire’s zoning requirements:
“There are a number of challenges with zoning, and I think we need to start by educating ourselves on what we’re really working with. The Zoning Atlas is a nonpolitical product that will allow us to really see with GIS mapping what each community is working with,” said Margolin.
For those that have faced the toughest consequences of the housing crisis, those who have experienced “houselessness” know how difficult re-housing can be. In addition, vulnerable residents, like those who are dealing with disability, mental illness, substance use, or co-occurring disorders, can find help and security with a “housing first” approach.
New Hampshire now has a statewide Council on Housing Stability that has released a new strategic plan that calls for an increase in housing units to address homelessness. The plan notes that consistent resources, prioritized housing, housing vouchers and wrap-around services helped decrease veterans homelessness in New Hampshire and throughout the country.
“I hope that we start to understand that when we invite housing into our communities, we are generating a local economy,” said Margolin. “Our homes house the people who are shopping in the markets and local retail, who are starting and supporting local businesses, and who are participating in the local workforce.
Although some people view housing as a human rights issue and others view it an economic issue, there is growing consensus that the status quo is not sustainable. Indeed, we need to come together with solutions so that all New Hampshire residents can have a place to call home.
This article is being shared with partners in the Granite State News Collaborative by The NH Center for Justice and Equity. For more information visit nhcje.org.