Towns prepare for new workforce housing law

An impending state law aimed at increasing affordable housing has some municipalities scrambling to figure out how to comply.

The law, which takes effect in July, requires each town to provide the opportunity for developers to build workforce housing in more than half of their residential areas.

Some small towns have hired consultants to help them navigate the law and draft ordinances that will be voted on this spring. Others say they’re trying to figure out if they already comply.

There also must be some place in town allowing multifamily housing with at least five dwelling units.

Among the small towns seeking help is Mason, with only about 1,300 residents. The town hired the Nashua Regional Planning Commission to help it navigate the new law, but the town’s leaders haven’t had time to thoroughly review the options, NRPC planner Kerrie Diers said.

As a result, Mason won’t be putting an ordinance on the ballot this year, Diers said.

“Mason really needs more time to decide how their community can best respond to the law,” Diers said. “Even communities that have their own planners are in the same dilemma.”

One town close to meeting the requirements is Amherst, thanks to an affordable-housing ordinance already on the books, planning director Charlie Tiedemann said.

Normally, two acres is required for a single-family home in Amherst. But in affordable housing developments, each house may sit on as little as three-quarters of an acre, as long as the house is part of a group of homes on four acres.

If developers aren’t allowed to build on smaller lots, then usually it isn’t feasible for them to sell the house at a work-force housing price; the land alone would cost too much for that to be possible.

Building eight multifamily units on four acres also is allowed under Amherst’s affordable-housing provision.

“The affordable-housing ordinance has been used (by developers) several times since I’ve been on the planning board … and that’s resulted in less expensive units,” planning board Chairman Arnie Rosenblatt said.

Still, the ordinance will have to be tweaked to ensure that it complies with the state’s workforce housing law, Tiedemann said.

Hollis is on track to put a work-force housing ordinance to a town vote this spring, as well.

The ordinance, prepared by Hollis planner Mark Fougere, would allow more rental housing above commercial space in Hollis’ downtown zone than is currently allowed.

The town would allow 30 percent more homes to be built in the cluster, provided the additional homes were workforce housing.

The ordinance also would promote workforce housing in the conversion of older homes to four-family buildings (currently allowed in some districts), only if one of the units is designated as workforce housing.

These units wouldn’t qualify as multifamily housing under the state workforce housing statute because multifamily housing must contain at least five units. To meet that requirement of the new law, Hollis’ ordinance also would create a multifamily zone at Route 111 and 111A, the southeast corner of the town.

“That’s best because there’s potential access to water there,” Fougere said.

Zoning for higher-density housing can be challenging in towns like Hollis that lack public water and sewer systems because lot size is partially determined by state rules governing septic systems.

Planners can’t override wastewater rules in order to increase density, Fougere said.

But where the right conditions exist, community septic systems and tighter spaces for individual septic systems can work.

“The community has to identify places where that might be possible,” said Stephen Williams, executive director of the NRPC.

Already OK?

Municipalities with at least some public water and sewer can allow denser housing and may have more options for meeting the work-force housing requirements.

In fact, some communities probably already meet the requirements, Williams said.

“In Nashua, those opportunities are already in place,” Williams said. “Milford, in all likelihood Merrimack, have enough opportunities for workforce housing that they probably don’t have a problem. Hudson, perhaps, as well.”

Milford planning director Bill Parker has tentatively come to the same conclusion.

“We’re fairly confident that the zoning already complies with what the state wants,” Parker said.

“We allow multifamily, we allow cluster development and we allow it in all the residential areas of town.”

In Merrimack, as in Milford, planners are working on a long-term housing vision as part of the town’s next master plan, planning assistant Steve Laurin said.

But the town doesn’t plan to implement any changes by July, Laurin said.

Many questions

The complex nature of the issue and the new law mean that even in towns with diverse housing options, planners aren’t entirely sure they meet the requirements.

“One of the questions that came up when this was introduced was, How do we know when we’ve crossed the finish line?” said Fougere, the Hollis planner.

And what will happen if towns don’t meet the requirements?

Williams, of the NRPC, thinks the most likely scenario is this: A developer proposes a workforce housing project but finds it isn’t feasible because of local zoning restrictions that increase his costs.

If the town insists on the restrictions, then the developer could go to court and possibly win a ruling waiving some of the restrictions.

“I don’t think it’s going to be widespread,” Williams said. “I think a few communities are going to be hit with this stuff, and what happens there will kind of establish what happens everywhere else. That’s kind of the pattern when the law changes.”

In fact, that’s how the law came about in the first place.

A 1991 state Supreme Court ruling in a lawsuit involving the town of Chester put the issue on lawmakers’ radar.

Since 1996, several workforce housing bills have been introduced, although the measure passed last year was the first successful effort.

While the new law doesn’t have any mechanism for the state to compel communities to comply with the law, it does say developers appealing a community’s regulations are entitled to a hearing in court within six months.

In Bedford, planning board member Chris Riley said at the board’s Dec. 15 meeting that he believed Bedford might be one of the communities that could face a court challenge if it fails to pass a workforce housing ordinance.

Bedford’s proposed ordinance would allow higher-density cluster developments throughout its residential areas and more multifamily housing in areas with public water and sewer.

Board members said they hoped voters would understand the importance of Bedford’s ordinance and approve it on the March ballot, on which they’ll see it after public hearings in January.

“Because that’s the other kicker here, that you can propose ordinance changes, but who knows if the voters will approve them or not?” Williams said. “And then, what do you do? I don’t think anybody knows the answer to that.”

But if towns succeed, and diverse affordable housing results, there can be a real benefit, Williams said.

“The communities that people want to be associated with are diverse,” Williams said. “They have different sorts of housing, different gathering places, they have areas that are highly dense, walkable, very social.”

Parker, Milford’s planning director, has started to observe that phenomenon.

The old attitude that Milford bears too much of the affordable-housing burden is fading, he said.

“I think that’s changing,” Parker said. “People are looking at Milford as more of a little hub, a nice, diverse area.”

Businesses also might be drawn to communities where employees making lower wages can afford to live nearby, Williams said.

“Nashua is another community that flourishes,” Williams said, “because they’re providing the whole spectrum of housing and opportunities.”