Mayors from Granite State cities as different as Portsmouth, Nashua, and Franklin gathered in Manchester on Monday, all with the same challenge top of mind: Housing.

Manchester’s new chief executive, Jay Ruais, hosted the Mayoral Summit at the Manchester Chamber of Commerce. After an hour-long closed-door session, the mayors spoke to reporters.

“I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to have 12 of the mayors from across the state with us today,” Ruais said. “We represent over half a million people across the state.

“We talked about affordable housing, education, bail reform, homelessness, addiction, mental health, everything that we’re addressing at the local level. I thought it was a really great conversation that we can build off of going forward.”

The Mayoral Summit in Manchester, N.H., on March 25, 2024
(CREDIT: Jeffrey Hastings)

Housing has been a hot political topic at both the state and local levels, with Gov. Chris Sununu and some legislative leaders urging local government to do more to bring down barriers faced by home builders and developers. Portsmouth Mayor Deaglan McEachern pushed back against that complaint.

“From 2010 to 2020, we were building about 80 units a year. From 2020 until now, it’s about four to five hundred units a year. So, we’ve dramatically increased the amount,” McEachern said. “Now, how do we make sure that [some] of those are affordable? Because the community looks at the market rate and says, ‘This is changing the community too fast.’ We want to make sure we’re still economically diverse.”

The average home in Portsmouth is valued at about $685,000, according to Zillow.

Mayor Bob Carrier of Dover said that, in the past, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development and the state helped subsidize housing for middle-class families. Cities like his need that help again.

“Years ago in the city of Dover and other communities, housing development from the federal government, [along with] some state, built buildings. They housed people, people who couldn’t afford a normal monthly rent, but they were subsidized,” Carrier said. “And it was wonderful.

“We need that financial bump, we need a bump from the state or the federal government to put us on track to do the same thing.”

The Mayoral Summits began during the COVID pandemic, usually via Zoom, the mayors said. Monday was the first time Manchester hosted the gathering.

Ruais, the first Republican elected Manchester mayor in a decade, addressed complaints from the State House that “NIMBYism” (Not In My Back Yard) in cities like his is preventing much-needed housing from being built.

“It’s incumbent upon us as leaders to do what we were elected to do and communicate with the people who elected us,” Ruais said. “We’re going through our own zoning rewrite right now, and one of the big thrusts that we’re going to be undertaking this spring and into the summer is having listening sessions… And we’re going to build all of that community input into our final plan.

The Mayoral Summit in Manchester, N.H. March 25, 2024
(CREDIT: Jeffrey Hastings)

“If we as leaders are getting out into our communities and selling a proposal and getting feedback, so it’s not a top-down, but rather a bottom-up collaborative approach — that’s how I think you defeat NIMBYism.”

Concord Mayor Byron Champlain agreed.

“NIMBY is generally a result of insufficient community conversation,” he said.

Other issues were raised, including state funding of local schools. One issue that was not raised, according to McEachern, was the ongoing debate over whether their cities should be able to become “sanctuary cities.”

“I think that’s kind of striking that Concord has spent so much time talking about [sanctuary cities], since it’s not something that I necessarily hear, certainly from constituents, and I didn’t hear come up today.”

There was one no-show, Mayor Robert Cone of Berlin, and only one woman mayor in the group, Franklin Mayor Desiree McLaughlin.

“It was amazing,” McLaughlin said of the summit. “Franklin is the smallest city in the state, and I was grateful to have the expertise in the room. This group has been invaluable and provided so many resources. To come here and hear other mayors discussing the same things I was concerned about, that let me know we’re in the right place.”