(Opinion) How to fix the NH housing shortage? Protect property rights
Over the decades, municipalities have placed undue restrictions on the use of properties
The New Hampshire housing market is in tougher shape than most of the country. Consider that a healthy inventory of homes for sale is five to six months’ supply — meaning if no more homes came on the market, the existing stock would be sold within six months. In March, the United States had a mere 2.6 months of housing inventory, but here in New Hampshire we had an even more anemic level of just one month.
The lack of available housing in New Hampshire is impacting our state’s ability to hire workers and expand our economy; it is exacerbating our state’s homelessness crisis; it is driving up property taxes by placing higher costs on fewer properties; it is forcing our young people out of the state to find more affordable options; and, as any realtor can attest, causing unnecessary stress and disruption for far too many families.
How did we get here? Over many decades, our municipalities have slowly, inexorably placed undue restrictions on the use of private property. Countless restrictive land-use decisions made by local and state officials — assumedly with the best intentions at the time — have led us to our current housing crisis, choking off any reasonable opportunity to meet our housing challenges.
For example, one New Hampshire town proposed placing 300 feet of frontage — the length of a football field — as a requirement on certain single-family housing developments. Another community mandates five acres to build a single house. And while zoning was originally created to simply keep incompatible uses of a town’s land separate from each other, it has been misapplied to limit private property rights and make housing development less affordable. It’s no wonder that the median-priced home in our state has risen to over $460,000 — well above the ability of the median income earner.
Realtors are committed to ensuring adequate and affordable housing options for everyone. As such, we believe that the only long-term solution to our housing crisis is by empowering our state’s property owners to create the housing New Hampshire’s workers and families need.
We strongly support recent efforts by the governor and many legislators in funding various financial incentives to towns and developers in creating more affordable housing options. But as important as those programs are, no amount of government dollars will be enough to eliminate the housing gap — estimated at more than 23,500 today and up to 90,000 by 2040.
While putting more government dollars towards the problem is a helpful and appreciated stopgap, the more fundamental and long-term course correction is fewer government restrictions and more private property rights.
Empowering private property owners certainly doesn’t mean a free-for-all without adequate government oversight to ensure the safety and health of everyone in the community. New Hampshire’s accessory dwelling unit law, which grants homeowners the right to an “in-law” apartment while ensuring towns have adequate ability to ensure the health and safety of the community, is a great example of how private rights can be expanded without risking community safety.
Some towns — Lebanon, Dover, Salem and Exeter, to name a few — are dutifully trying to meet the demands for housing with innovative developments by granting property owners greater control over their own land. Unfortunately, too many communities have gone in the other direction, stripping property owner rights to such a degree that the creation of housing is virtually impossible.
Government action, whether at the local or state level, should assist everyone in achieving the American dream of owning a home, or at the very least should not be actively trying to block access to that dream. We can and must do better. Let’s solve our housing crisis by restoring power back to our residents.
Ben Cushing is president of the NH Association of Realtors.