by Ethan DeWitt, New Hampshire Bulletin
As a member of Manchester’s planning board, Molly Lunn Owen knows the city’s housing landscape better than most. But that hasn’t helped her find a house to buy.
With two young children and two incomes, Lunn Owen and her husband are ideal buyers for a starter home to replace their current rental apartment. But for Lunn Owen, the homes that do exist in Manchester are either far out of their budget or quickly snapped up by higher bidders. The state’s most populous city has few options for those who want to upgrade.
“No one’s building condos,” she said. “No one’s building single-family homes or duplexes.”
A new housing tool released by St. Anselm College this week might shed light on why.
The New Hampshire Zoning Atlas, which launched Wednesday, is a sweeping new online program that allows users to look up zoning restrictions in their town and compare them to neighboring towns. Created with the help of students and researchers at St. Anselm College, with assistance from New Hampshire Housing and the New Hampshire Department of Business and Economic Affairs, the state atlas is the third of its kind in the U.S., and part of an effort by the National Zoning Atlas collaborative.
The tool is “policy neutral,” its creators note; it doesn’t lay out which zoning codes are better than others. But the reams of data it provides can explain why certain areas of the state have more housing opportunities than others.
And in Manchester, the atlas indicates that the lack of available housing is, in part, a problem created by surrounding towns.
New land for development in Manchester is scarce. Just 7.8 percent of the city is developable for new housing on small lots of 1 acre or less – the prime conditions for starter homes – researchers at St. Anselm said Wednesday.
But the surrounding towns don’t exactly pick up the slack. None of the towns bordering Manchester allow single-family homes on small lots, the atlas shows. That means there is little space to expand for Manchester-area families who aren’t looking for larger yards and houses.
Those barriers are one of many illuminated by the new atlas. Housing advocates and researchers are hoping the map will shed light on other development hurdles baked into local zoning codes, and spur them to action.
New Hampshire needs 23,000 new units to help stabilize the state’s housing and rental markets and bring down prices, New Hampshire Housing, a state agency, said in a report this month. The state will need to build around 90,000 units by 2040 to meet demand caused by rising populations, the report added.
But across the state are local zoning ordinances that make that goal much harder, the housing atlas reveals.
The vast majority of towns in the state do not allow houses to be built on small lots of 1 acre or less, the atlas shows. Many require 2 or even 5 acres per house, and some communities have requirements as high as 20 acres.
New Hampshire towns are also not likely to allow multiple families to live on small lots, the atlas reveals.
And even after the Legislature passed laws requiring that towns allow manufactured homes, most towns have found workarounds to effectively bar them from existence.
One tactic: In zoning areas designated for manufactured homes, some towns have set minimum lot size requirements so high that a manufactured home community would be all but impossible. Just 9.9 percent of all developable land statewide allows for small-lot manufactured homes and parks, the atlas reveals.
Towns have also erected barriers against accessory dwelling units. Despite a 2016 law mandating that town zoning boards allow for ADUs, allowing homeowners to convert parts of their homes or property into additional apartments, many towns have imposed additional requirements that ADUs include new parking spaces in order to be approved. Some towns require as many as three or four parking spaces per new ADU.
Then there are a bevy of other zoning codes designed to keep neighborhoods from growing or adding new apartment units.
Taken together, state housing researchers say, New Hampshire’s town-by-town zoning codes – while once well-intentioned – now work to prevent new development that is crucially needed to allow the state to keep a healthy population growth.
“We’re at a point in our history where a great mistake has been made,” said Rob Dapice, chief executive officer of New Hampshire Housing, the state agency. “And it took us a long time to get here. But now we see it.”
Turning that around, advocates argue, will require residents to get to know their own local zoning codes and to apply pressure on local officials to change them.
The new online atlas allows users to peruse cities and towns down to the neighborhood level, and see how much of that geographic area is restricted to single-family houses, two-family houses, and other limitations. Users can see how much of a town is set aside for residential use, commercial use, mixed-use, or non-developable land; what the minimum lot size requirements are for each area; whether detached ADUs are allowed; and whether multi-family units include affordable housing requirements.
And users can get a bird’s-eye view of the state to see how common – or uncommon – some zoning code provisions are across New Hampshire.
Advocates say the zoning atlas could represent a turning point. New Hampshire residents increasingly see housing availability as a problem in the state; a recent University of New Hampshire poll found that 32 percent of respondents identified it as the most important issue facing the state, the highest of all options polled.
By allowing residents to easily see what barriers exist in their own communities, more changes might happen organically, supporters say.
Dick Anagnost, a housing developer in the state, says some town residents’ aversion to more housing has held back many of his projects. Density, Anagnost says, “is a four-letter word.”
The result is that when Anagnost approaches a town with a proposal for a housing complex with several hundred units, the planning board might knock it down to 90 by the time it is approved.
That means that developable land that could be maximized to help the tackled state’s housing shortage is instead watered down based on existing ordinances, Anagnost said. And once the land is developed, it is difficult to go back and add units after the fact, he added.
To Anagnost, standardizing zoning codes so they are more consistent across the state would help developers get more projects approved to meet demand.
The zoning atlas, he said, could help with that. But it also could give some residents ideas about how to tighten zoning, he warned.
“When they first unveiled this, and we first looked at it, my director of real estate development rushed into my office and said, ‘We’re dead. We’re going out of business. They’re going to use this against us because they’re going to implement even more zoning regulations to prevent us from going forward,’” he said.
“… But being the ultimate optimist, I’m hoping that the opposite is true,” he said.
Margaret Byrnes, executive director of the New Hampshire Municipal Association, said she wasn’t worried about an increase in zoning barriers. Most New Hampshire municipal employees recognize the problem a lack of housing poses to their towns and want to improve it, she argued. The new atlas will allow officials to better educate residents about why zoning overhauls could be beneficial, not harmful, she said.
“Being able to educate voters on the benefits, the community benefit of making some of these changes that may have a stigma as being negative for their communities, is a really big part of this,” she said.
To some, the “not in my backyard” contingent of communities will always be a vocal faction when it comes to zoning. But newly empowered residents with better data could be the antidote.
“When we talk to people about housing, there are those who are like: ‘I love my community the way it is. I want to build a wall, build a moat, bring in the alligator and no more building, because I just bought my home and I like it the way it is. This is where we draw the line now that I just moved here,’” said Sylvia van Aulock, executive director of the Southern New Hampshire Planning Commission.
“Then there are those who say to you, ‘I love my community. I’ve lived here for my whole life. I’ve raised my family here.’ They also love the community character just like the first example. And yet their adult child has no choices on where to live. They cannot move in that same community, so they have to leave. They may even need to leave New Hampshire. And look at all (that) we lose by doing that.”
To access the New Hampshire Zoning Atlas, go to https://www.anselm.edu/about/offices-centers-institutes/centers-institutes/center-ethics-society/nh-zoning-atlas and scroll down to “Explore the Interactive Zoning Atlas.”
This story was written by Ethan DeWitt, a reporter at the New Hampshire Bulletin, where this story first appeared.
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