Opinion: USDA gives Granite Staters a softer landing in housing
Agency has invested millions to help NH homeowners buy, maintain their homes
Some folks may not know that housing programs — not agriculture programs — take up the majority of the USDA Rural Development fiscal portfolio, investing both grant and loan dollars to help thousands of New Hampshire residents buy, maintain, weatherize and modernize their homes.
Rural Development funding through housing programs also helps subsidize multifamily properties with rent reduction for tenants — we know how important housing is for our rural families, and we work hard to make it safe and affordable. In 2021, our staff obligated more than $71.4 million in single- family housing purchases and repairs throughout the Granite State. The stories we hear from first-time homeowners about their experiences and their joy are so heartwarming, as are the tales of triumph from folks who’ve had crucial repairs done in the nick of time.
I remember the day my partner and I bought our house; mid-summer nearly a decade ago. Like many Americans, I had been a renter, enjoying the freedom from fixing roofs or leaky faucets, but spending my own funds every month without a place to call my own. The day we signed our paperwork was an incredible feeling. It felt like we had the future in our hands. Certainly, we had a mortgage and a commitment to pay off the house with our local lender, but it still felt like OURS. We could plan for the future, and put down roots in the community.
Sadly, this experience is not something everyone can reach. According to the National Association of Realtors, and their statewide single-family housing data, in 2018 the median price of a single family home in New Hampshire was $283,000, but by 2021 it had risen to $395,000. Moreover, the combination of a lack of new homebuilding, an underinvestment in the housing stock that exists, and rising prices has created a gap in supply and demand too wide for thousands of families and potential homeowners to cross.
This is even more true for Americans who have lower incomes, or lower wealth, and it hits black and brown Americans as a population the most. The opportunity to own a home, and to build and pass down wealth to the next generation are often completely out of reach. Homeownership isn’t just about your family’s financial future, however. It is also about community building. When you choose a home and a location, you are looking at access to schools, to culture, drive time to your job, and so on. When people are priced out of homes, we lose their intrinsic and skilled value as human beings: the opportunity lost from missed intellectual and physical contributions to our communities, and the substantive and significant roles of neighbor, friend and volunteer unrealized.
Housing is an issue of equity as well as community and economic development. New Hampshire, through its InvestNH housing funding, will dedicate $100 million dollars to this housing crunch by addressing four key imperatives:
- New construction and infrastructure for residential multi-family units
- Permitting of new construction within all New Hampshire municipalities
- Support of zoning studies and changes to zoning
- Demolition of older stock
These are critical elements that will loosen the bottleneck for developers and communities, easing the multi-stage processes that often slows down housing development. There is also a focus on affordability because the state of New Hampshire knows and is working toward that “missing middle” for workforce housing that is so crucial in our rural communities. These state funds will also complement the existing federal programs, such as our 504 Home Repair program, where existing homeowners can repair, improve and modernize their home. We all know that whether you’re in Hillsborough or Stewartstown, having a bad boiler or roof going into winter is no joke.
Rural homeowners’ lives are changing every day for the better, and yes, I’ve read their stories and visited their homes, so I may have a viewpoint that could be considered “rosy,” given other anecdotal evidence. But I feel a great deal of optimism about the housing outlook in New Hampshire. I believe in our RD staff, and our customers are some of the most resilient, dedicated and passionate people I’ve ever come across.
And I’m encouraged by New Hampshire’s commitment to making it easier and simpler to build new homes. After reading stories like that of Candice Donovan in Rockingham County, a single mom who refused to quit on her kids, and after visiting Rachel Rancourt’s home in mid-June with my colleagues and New Hampshire housing partners, you’ll understand why I believe USDA Housing Programs are the building blocks for sustainable community development.
Sarah Waring is state director of USDA Rural Development of New Hampshire and Vermont.