Middle class priced out in NH: Summit an effort to push issue of housing to national agenda
GOFFSTOWN -- For at least a day, New Hampshire was Ground Zero in the fight for moderately priced housing across the country, as presidential candidates, economists, developers and bankers descended on the campus of Saint Anselm College's Institute of Politics on Friday in the hope of elevating housing on the national agenda.
The sold-out, daylong series of candidate conversations and panel discussions was described by its sponsors as an effort to “inject housing as a central issue in the upcoming presidential primaries.”
One speaker after another urged New Hampshire voters to press candidates on housing issues as they visit the Granite State, bringing attention to what one called “a silent crisis of rising rents and diminished access to home ownership that is destabilizing millions of families.”
New Hampshire was chosen as the location for the summit because of its first-in-the-nation presidential primary, but also because of its housing market, which has priced out most middle-class families.
The event opened with a locally produced video featuring three New Hampshire residents who represent the range of circumstances facing those seeking adequate shelter. “Stuck ... When No Place is Affordable and You Can't Get Ahead,” was produced by journalist Gail Huff-Brown, wife of former Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown.
The video introduced the audience to a 53-year-old truck driver from Nashua, struggling to support his two granddaughters while paying $1,500 a month for less-than-desirable accommodations; a recent college graduate coping with burdensome student loans in search of an apartment funded by a federal tax credit program; and an elderly woman from Londonderry, on the verge of despair.
Flo Silva, 89, described having to give up the mobile home she'd owned for years when the lot rent hit $450 a month. She's part of the fastest growing demographic in New Hampshire — seniors on a fixed income facing rising costs that leave them unable to afford necessities like medicine and food.
For the past five years, she's been on three different waiting lists for government-subsidized elderly housing. “There's no help at all,” she says, staring into the camera and fighting back tears. “In fact, it hurts. I don't know how long I can do it. I'm glad I'm on my way out.”
Londonderry has actually done more to address the problem than many New Hampshire communities. Town Manager Kevin Smith described several of the local initiatives in a session titled “Granite State Housing Landscape.”
In the 1980s and 1990s, Londonderry was typical of many Southern New Hampshire communities within reach of the Greater Boston market, focused more on controlling housing than developing it.
“We went through tremendous growth, mostly in the single-family housing market,” said Smith. “For a long time, that's all Londonderry offered — single-family homes on one acre or an acre-and-a-half lots. This served the needs in the '80s and '90s, but as time went on, we realized the town couldn't sustain offering only that kind of housing.”
Smith felt the problem first-hand. His parents and his wife's parents were both from Londonderry. “We would have loved to live and stay in Londonderry as well,” he said, “but our first apartment was in Manchester and our first home was in neighboring Litchfield.”
As the years went by, the lack of diversity in housing began to take its toll, he recalls. “Elderly were moving out, new graduates couldn't move in, workers couldn't find a place to live.”
In 2013, the town revised its master plan to set the stage for zoning and land use ordinances that favored what Smith called “a diversified housing strategy that promoted affordable housing and a more livable community.”
“Londonderry identified its problem and took steps to solve its problem,” he said. “In just three years, we have three large-scale workforce housing developments in the pipeline, another 240 units approved in the north end of town, elderly apartments that are being built, as well as our first assisted living facility along Route 102.”
There's a proposal for a new nursing home in town that is now before state regulators for a “certificate of need.” The town has taken some innovative approaches, like offering an old brownfield site to a developer at no charge if he agrees to build low-cost senior housing apartments.
A centerpiece of the town's transformation is the Woodmont Commons project — a 600-acre, village-style development that would cater to aging baby boomers and young adults, with a variety of housing options, 800,000 square feet of retail space, two hotels and a hospital to be developed over the next 20 years.
“This is huge for Londonderry,” said Smith. “Now we will have a whole continuum of people who will be able to live, work, play and stay in Londonderry. It's something we are very excited about.”
The Londonderry experience is antithetical to many of the themes that have driven the narrative of housing in non-urban New Hampshire areas known for exclusionary zoning — population growth is bad, new people add cost to the school system and raise my taxes, multi-family housing attracts the wrong element.
“The main impediment to affordable housing is regulatory policy,” said Dean Christon, executive director of the New Hampshire Housing Finance Authority. “It's been an issue in New Hampshire that we have worked hard on for more than a decade. We need to continue. The impact of local land use policy on the cost and ability to build rental housing is a significant challenge that we have to face as a state.”
The summit featured six presidential candidates — Chris Christie, Jim Gilmore, Lindsey Graham, Mike Huckabee, Martin O'Malley and George Pataki — along with an all-star roster of state and local officials from New Hampshire and national leaders in housing and finance.
If housing wasn't front and center in the presidential election before the summit, that should change, said Jonathan Smoke, chief economist for Realtor.com. “This is not on the presidential agenda, but it should be,” he said. “It has the most impact on the middle class.”
The event was sponsored by the J. Ronald Terwilliger Foundation for Housing America's Families, founded in 2014 by one of the most successful multi-housing developers in the country, and the Bipartisan Policy Center, a think tank founded in 2007 by former Senate Majority Leaders Howard Baker, Tom Daschle, Bob Dole and George J. Mitchell.