Workforce housing solutions need creative actions – Monadnock Ledger Transcript

The new housing on Fisherville Road in Penacook is named for late CATCH Housing director Rosemary Heard. GEOFF FORESTER
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Businesses across the Monadnock region are looking to hire employees, many to fill newly created jobs for expansion. Renters want to buy a house and some homeowners are deciding it’s time to downsize and seek a smaller place to live.
But there’s a roadblock that seems to be around every corner and it comes down to housing availability. The solution? Finding creative ways to create more housing in a way that maintains the rural character of the area and provides opportunities for those seeking to move here or set down roots.
Jo Anne Carr, director of planning and economic development for the town of Jaffrey and resident of Peterborough, said the focus in the region has to be on creating workforce housing.
She said the boom of the real estate market in recent years has driven up prices in such a way that some prospective buyers are priced out of competing for homes that are for sale. Simply put, “Demand is higher than supply,” Carr said.
For others who are just entering the job market or aren’t in the position to buy, the lack of rentals makes it hard to find a place to live, let alone relocate to the region.
“We need to be addressing the workforce housing issue,” Carr said.
She said in Jaffrey, changes to zoning, have allowed for increased density for developments that have access to the town’s water and sewer system. It used to be one unit per acre, but that has increased to six units per acre, and developers can add an additional two units if it is deemed workforce housing by state standards.
She said when zoning limits what can be built by acreage it deters those in the building trades from moving forward.
In Jaffrey, increasing what is allowed won’t overwhelm the wastewater system, Carr said, as it has been built up in a way that allows for growth.
Carr said there is an ample amount of land available that could be developed, but it comes down to if it’s economically advantageous for builders to enter into a project.
She said there are four aspects that developers need to consider for housing development: price of land, cost of labor, if certain uses are allowed or disallowed and cost of materials. Because oftentimes, Carr said, it’s six years before a developer will see a return on investment.
“My goal is to work with developers,” she said. “Because it’s complicated. It’s not something many developers have experience with.”
Building units that cross income levels is the way future developments need to be viewed, Carr said. There also needs to be incentives put into place that entice developers to undertake projects.
But the topic of workforce housing is one that divides communities.
“People say that’s not going to improve our community, improve our tax rate,” Carr said. “But we are an aging state and we need to bring in younger people. We want to be able to provide that. I think it’s very important for the stability of our population in general, for our economy and our social aspect.”
Ivy Vann, vice chair of the Peterborough Planning Board and a NH State Representative, said there is plenty of space available for new housing, but zoning regulations have made it really hard to build housing.
But what Vann is really an advocate for is taking existing single-family homes and turning them into multi-unit housing, like she did with her Peterborough property.
“We have produced a lot of housing that’s suitable for a family,” Vann said. The current zoning codes, she said, have not produced the right thing. “But making changes that will allow for more housing choice is difficult.”
That’s why she plans to reintroduce her House Bill, A Four-Plex is a House, this year, which will allow historical appropriate density in places served by municipal water and sewer.
Allowing for changes to single-family homes is what Vann sees as a way to alleviate the problem.
“In order to make progress we have to make changes to our zoning codes for better use of lands served by water and sewer,” she said.
She said the current cost of materials and land makes it too expensive to build, which causes developers to weigh if it’s financially worth it.
“It’s a risky business,” she said.
Renovating existing homes to create more units and infilling would make a big difference, Vann said.
“I think that’s where it starts,” she said.
But, Vann said, there is currently “no incentive to make the changes that need to be made.”
She said creating new housing that is already currently on a town’s infrastructure, will lead to less cost for maintenance for years to come.
Vann pointed to the eight cottages created from a one-acre plot that was a parking lot on Vine Street as a prime example. Its value was $47,000 with a tax bill of $1,500. After the development, the land is now worth $2.8 million and generates $80,000 in taxes.
“That’s a win for the town,” she said. But four houses put at the end of a dead-end road, with costs for road paving, maintenance, water and sewer, will not be as much of a benefit to a town.
“We can’t go on doing that. We can, but it’s a bad plan,” she said.
Vann said people are looking for a walkable neighborhood close to downtown and the only way to create more housing like that is to rehab existing buildings into multiple units.
“We haven’t built enough housing to make housing affordable,” she said. “The way you get more housing is renovating existing housing and allowing for better use of the land that is already in existence.”
It also allows towns to maintain their rural character.
“The only way to preserve the rural district is to stop building in it,” Vann said.
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