The sixth annual Housing We Need forum, subtitled “Signs of Hope,” was hosted by the Center for Ethics in Society at Saint Anselm College. The event was a who’s who of New Hampshire: local officials, nonprofit leaders, and related industry professionals. More than 110 attendees gathered at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics, with a similar number on Zoom.
The event was predicated on the idea that New Hampshire has a housing shortage and that the solutions to it are largely on the supply side; housing will become more affordable and accessible if more of it is built. The “housing crisis” was a proper noun at the gathering, needing neither introduction nor explanation.
The event began with several speeches, a presentation of the “2023 New Hampshire Zoning Atlas,” and a lightning round of success stories. It closed with a series of moderated discussions and a conversation with Jim O’Connell, M.D., about whom Pulitzer Prize winner Tracy Kidder wrote the book “Rough Sleepers: Dr. Jim O’Connell’s Urgent Mission to Bring Healing to Homeless People.” That conversation was moderated by Laura Knoy, founding host of the NHPR program, “The Exchange.” O’Connell has provided medical care to the homeless population of Boston for his entire career.
“I got the sense that people are overall hopeful … Events like this can serve as a catalyst for change.” O’Connell agreed, “I see greatness on the horizon… I see the solutions are all out there,” said Dr. Violet Victoria, the Associate Director for the Center of Ethics in Society and an adjunct professor of philosophy at Saint Anselm College.
That sense of hope was deliberately instilled by the event’s organizers (hence the subtitle of the event, “Signs of Hope”). Ten leaders in housing were invited onstage to give a brief account of their “Housing Success Story.” The stories included the Bluebird Project in Conway, which converts historic structures into affordable housing. The business has purchased three properties (including a multi-building property) for conversion since its founding. Bluebird Project restores and preserves historic architectural elements in their projects.
Another success was the owner of GSD Studios, Maggie Randolph, who highlighted The Cottages at Back River Road, a pocket neighborhood of tiny homes. The development is the New Hampshire Planners Association’s 2023 Project of the Year.
A third success was Jeff Belanger, director of planning and community development in Manchester’s announcement of the approval of 800 new units in the city. Belanger said, “Supply is the name of the game.” Finally, the 10th success, Kim Bock, executive director of the New Hampshire Coalition of Recovery Housing, spoke about the benefits of recovery housing and the organization’s growth from 18 to 94 certified recovery houses (over 1,200 beds). She offered, “We need more housing. Your towns need more workforce. We can work together on this.”
The event was not merely congratulatory (although there was a video awards ceremony). Dr. Jason Sorens, Senior Research Faculty at the American Institute for Economic Research, and Noah Hodgetts, principal planner at the New Hampshire Office of Planning & Development, spoke about key findings of the “2023 New Hampshire Zoning Atlas,” which was updated to accommodate changes in zoning regulations and the type of permit needed when a district requires a public hearing for a housing type.
The “Zoning Atlas” is a nonpartisan project with state support, but the subtext that zoning deregulation is good is obvious. The point of cataloging New Hampshire residential zoning is to spur change in zoning. Sorens announced the “Zoning Atlas” captured more liberalizing changes than restricting changes to zoning in New Hampshire, with accessory dwelling units becoming less restricted in many districts.
Sorens recommended New Hampshire allow single-family housing to be built on smaller lots. Only 14.4 percent of buildable land in the state allows small lot, single-family housing by right. Sorens also pointed out that Keene had reduced the minimum lot size from 5 to 2 acres in a rural district and that Lebanon had allowed cottage-style developments, providing the developer receives a conditional use permit.
Hodgetts said New Hampshire has less area zoned for two-family, by-right construction than any other type of housing and that Berlin now allows manufactured housing on any residential lot.
Speakers at the five-hour event were Dr. Max Latona, director of the Center for Ethics in Society; Saint Anselm College President Joseph Favazza; Margaret Burns of the New Hampshire State Municipal Association; and Ben Frost, deputy executive director and chief legal officer of New Hampshire Housing.
Part social reunion, part rally, and part trade exposition, the Housing We Need event was considered a success by organizers and attendees. Said Frost, “Today has surpassed its purpose.”