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Another View -- Pamela H. Patenaude: Presidential candidates who ignore housing ignore a big issue

September 24. 2015 11:24PM

Attention presidential candidates: If you are looking for an issue that hits home with New Hampshire voters, start focusing on housing.

For more and more residents of the Granite State, housing affordability has become a serious and growing problem.

According to a recent Harvard study, in 2013 nearly 36 percent of New Hampshire’s 519,000 households paid more than 30 percent of their gross incomes on housing (the traditional measure of affordability), while some 78,000 households paid in excess of 50 percent.

New Hampshire Housing tells us that, since 2000, median rents in the state have increased by nearly 50 percent, far exceeding the 24 percent increase in median incomes for renters over the same period.

Rental vacancy rates have plummeted in New Hampshire, putting upward pressure on rents and making it more difficult to find an affordable apartment. There have been fewer than 800 units of multi-family rental housing built annually since 2005, far short of what is necessary to keep up with demand.

While these figures may seem abstract, the fact is real people are hurting.

Take David Delsario, a 53-year-old truck driver who has raised his two teenage granddaughters since their births. Each month, David pays $1,500 on rent and utilities for a modest home in Nashua. These costs consume a large portion of his monthly income. Although David has not forsaken his lifelong dream of owning a home, the expenses keep piling up, making it virtually impossible to save for a mortgage down payment.

Then there’s the heart-wrenching story of Flo Silva, an 89-year-old widow who lives in a manufactured home in Londonderry. Flo has trouble making her property tax payments and has applied unsuccessfully for government-subsidized senior housing. Her name appears on three separate waiting lists for this assistance. Flo wonders how long she can hold out and says with tears in her eyes, “I am glad I’m on my way out.”

The lack of affordable housing is affecting New Hampshire’s economic competitiveness. According to David Juvet of the Business and Industry Association, high housing costs are impacting the ability of many companies to hire and retain employees. He says housing affordability is one of the top concerns of Granite State employers.

The housing problems here in New Hampshire are repeated across the United States. Nearly 40 million U.S. households pay excessive shares of their incomes just on housing.

Rising rents, in particular, are crushing family budgets across the country. Nationwide, a record number of renters, some 20.8 million, spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing, leaving little for other essentials like nutritious food and health care. An acute shortage of affordable rental homes is pushing rents even higher.

At the same time, the national homeownership rate has fallen to a 48-year low. Fewer and fewer young adults are able to save for a mortgage down payment as higher rents and tighter underwriting standards conspire to shut them out of the homeownership market.

Another critical factor is the enormous amount of student loan debt that young adults have incurred. Seventy-five percent of college graduates in New Hampshire have accumulated such debt, with the average borrower owing nearly $33,000. That’s the highest level of any state in the country.

It’s no wonder that thousands of parents across New Hampshire are wondering how their college-age children will ever pay for housing once they graduate. For many, the idea that their children can save enough for a mortgage down payment seems like wishful thinking.

Of course, there’s no magic solution to these problems. Government has an important role to play, but equally important are private institutions and the nonprofit community. We need an all-hands-on-deck approach that harnesses the best thinking and resources from every sector of society.

On Oct. 16, the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College will host an all-day Housing Summit during which experts from around the country will take an in-depth look at housing in the state as well as nationally. The summit, which is open to the public, will help initiate a national conversation on the troubling conditions in housing and identify the best way forward.

Broad access to stable and affordable housing is the foundation of a prosperous New Hampshire and a strong America. We can no longer afford to let the problems in housing fester and grow more severe. It’s time to take action.

Pamela H. Patenaude is president of the J. Ronald Terwilliger Foundation for Housing America’s Families. She was born and raised in New Hampshire.

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