New Hampshire’s housing shortage is hurting ability to attract workers

At NHBR webinar, panel says lack of availability is making it harder for businesses to thrive

No Housing 2The state’s housing situation has gotten so tight that businesses almost have to be real estate agents for new employees, but easing the shortage may require forcing communities to allow multi-family or more clustered housing even if locals don’t like it.

Those were among the items that came up during an hourlong webinar Thursday titled “What NH Business Can Do to Help Solve the Housing Crisis,” held by NH Business Review.

The half-dozen participants were unanimous in lamenting the difficulty of finding housing of any type in many parts of the state and how that is making it hard for businesses to thrive.

“(Human resource) departments are adding almost a Realtor function to their job,” said Michael Skelton, the new director of the Business and Industry Association. “Nowadays, many discussions with (prospective employees) span into: ‘Do you have a place to live, and can we help you solve that issue, because we want to be able to hire you.’ ”

Possible solutions mentioned ranged from businesses getting a developer to build housing on land that it owns to trying to change minds in the local town or city about the need to allow more housing.

“Speaking out is really critical. Joining local land-use boards, or speaking out in the news about the importance of new housing as a real public good, a place their workers need – that’s important,” said Rob Dapice, director of NH Housing, a quasi-government agency that supports affordable housing.

Speakers were enthusiastic about some current legislative action, including Senate Bill 400, which would create an affordable housing “toolkit,” including state support and training for local land-use boards that are often filled by volunteers with little experience in the field. They also praised Gov. Chris Sununu’s announcement in his State of the State address shortly before the webinar that federal money would be used to create a $100 million affordable housing fund, although details are scant.

“We have a lot of carrots; we don’t have a lot of sticks,” said Darren Winham, economic development director in Exeter. “We need sticks.”

Winham pointed to communities in the Seacoast area that have regulations, such as two-acre minimum zoning and opposition to sewer or municipal water systems, which make it almost impossible to build anything but a relatively small number of expensive single-family homes. “They want to see other people to solve the problem; they don’t want to solve the problem themselves,” he said.

Several speakers praised the Housing Appeals Board created by the Legislature in 2020 to provide a quicker, cheaper way to appeal decisions by local planning boards. The board has drawn criticism from those who think it overrides local control and would be disbanded or curtailed under several bills being considered by the legislature. Skelton said it was among the BIA’s “highest priority” to keep the appeal board operating as it does.

While New Hampshire has a law that requires communities to create a reasonable amount of “workforce housing,” Dapice said its effect is limited. “There is a lot of confusion about what exactly compliance looks like.”

Opposition to cluster or multi-family housing often carries concern that it will lower the value of existing houses in the area. Dapice said overcoming this fear is a necessary step.

“Exeter is a great example of a place where people want to be,” he said. The new housing “contributes to the vibrancy of the community and that increases property values.”

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