To address housing shortage, bill targets sweet spot between homes and complexes

By: - March 11, 2022 5:42 am
Houses on a city street

A bill proposed by Rep. Ivy Vann, a Peterborough Democrat, would create a statutory right for homeowners to create four-unit lots, and require that cities and towns accept those developments if other requirements are met. (Dana Wormald | New Hampshire Bulletin)

It’s one of the most common questions for clients approaching Lyme Properties, a real estate development company in West Lebanon. Can I subdivide my home into apartments? 

The desire is understandable: New Hampshire’s Upper Valley is mired in a housing shortage crisis. Employers like Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center and the medical device manufacturer Simbex are struggling to find places to house hard-won new hires. Dartmouth College, too, is running low on accommodations for students. To many, converting existing homes into apartment units could provide a low-impact way to accommodate more people – and produce lower-cost places to live. 

But for Lyme Properties and other developers, the answer to the requests is often no. Tight zoning ordinances in Lebanon, West Lebanon, and Hanover have stymied many projects by requiring that lots and homes be occupied by single families only, Chet Clem, executive director of Lyme Properties, testified to a House committee last month. The only alternative, Clem says, are controversial apartment buildings.

“I can build one unit, or I can go 125,”  he said. “But I can’t do anything in the middle. I’ve spent months and thousands of dollars trying to, only to have it shot down because of old thinking around smart neighborhood-specific density.”

This year, lawmakers are trying to clear that hurdle. A bill proposed by Rep. Ivy Vann, a Peterborough Democrat, would create a statutory right for homeowners to create four-unit lots, and require that cities and towns accept those developments if other requirements are met. The bill, House Bill 1177, would “allow as a matter of right” any single-family lot to be divided into four units, as long as the lot is already serviced by water and sewer lines. 

As the bill moves to the House floor amid growing awareness of the state’s housing woes, some lawmakers believe the top-down approach could have a stronger chance this year.

HB 1177, which was recommended by the House Municipal and County Government Committee, 11-9,  would require towns and cities to accept a number of different four-unit arrangements, including a four-unit building, four separate units, four townhouses, two duplexes, one duplex and two accessory dwelling units, or one single-family home with three accessory dwelling units. The bill would allow municipalities to keep any other zoning restrictions already in place for the single-family homes, such as lot and yard standards, setbacks, parking requirements, and lot coverage.

To Clem, the bill would put power back in the hands of homeowners over local officials and allow housing capacity density to gradually increase. 

“The procedural gymnastics required to even propose housing that is denser than a single family is preventative,” he said. “We’re asking to put a tool back in the toolbox for housing.”

Vann, who works as a town planner, argues the bill strikes a balance between increasing housing availability and preserving the character of individual cities and towns. And she says it addresses what some analysts have called “missing middle” housing – housing that falls in between single-family lots that are often popular with existing residents and major apartment complexes that address the shortage at a large scale. The choice of four units in the bill is designed to match the maximum subdivision generally accepted in loan applications, she said. 

“This is not a change that’s going to cause big developers to come to your neighborhood,” Vann said. “The juice isn’t worth the squeeze for that. …That conversion of an existing house to a three family or four family that can be done by two women in a pickup truck.”

For Vann, expanding apartment units within existing homes – a process known as “infill” – could help grow populations while sidestepping the controversies that generally attend major affordable housing projects in cities and towns. And because the bill is limited to existing housing lots that are already serviced by municipal sewer and water lines, the ensuing developments will not add to housing sprawl across the state, she argued. Towns will not need to add snow-plowing routes or power lines.  

“We want to encourage effective use of our existing infrastructure,” she said. “Because when we spread development out over the countryside, it’s not financially reasonable for towns. It’s better to put it in where we already have infrastructure.” 

Others see the bill as a key attraction and retention engine for the state by providing downtown apartments to younger residents less interested in expensive single-family homes. 

“We need more people in general,” said Will Stewart, executive director of Stay Work Play New Hampshire, an advocacy organization, testifying in favor of the bill. “We need more young people in particular. Not just for our employers who are screaming for employees across industries across the state, but our towns, who need volunteers to serve in those planning board positions, those conservation commissions – for our nonprofits, who need people to serve on their boards of directors and their committees.” 

Rep. Rebecca McWilliams, an architect based in Concord, said the bill could satisfy the “huge amount of demand” for multi-unit developments. Among younger newcomers to the state, houses that allow them to live on one side and rent out the other are currently “the hottest commodity,” she said.

“This bill solves a problem for the next generation, for what is really an opportunity, a business opportunity, for an individual or couple to buy and make some money and build a nest egg, and maybe save for their children’s future,” she told lawmakers. 

McWilliams also raised what she said was another potential benefit: maintaining opportunities for New Hampshire contractors, plumbers, and other housing workers. When larger out-of-state developers come in to complete projects, they often usher in dramatic boom and bust cycles for local contractors, who might be pulled down to Boston for more constant work. Creating infill housing developments could make that work more consistent, she argued.

But the top-down approach in HB 1177 has not convinced all lawmakers, and it runs against a long-held preference by many Republican members of the committee – and the broader House – to leave housing issues to cities and towns.

The New Hampshire Municipal Association has spoken against the bill, citing its blanket opposition to any legislation that overrides local zoning ordinances. 

“Historically, zoning ordinances have been determined at the local level and tailored to the specific community,” said Natch Greyes, the municipal services counsel for the association. “And we think that’s the appropriate way that they should continue to be created.”

And even though the committee voted to recommend the bill, it still passed with only two Republicans – Rep. Joseph Guthrie of Hampstead and Rep. Richard Lascelles of Litchfield – voting in favor. 

One exchange laid the disagreements bare. 

“Do you believe that there’s anything that is preventing cities, towns, and counties from changing their zoning to permit this on their own?” Rep. Richard Tripp, a Derry Republican, asked McWilliams after her testimony.

“Structurally?” McWilliams replied. “There’s nothing preventing them structurally. Politically? All the time. That’s why we’re here in this situation.” 

Gov. Chris Sununu has made housing a centerpiece of his policy priorities in recent years, and has supported a bill that would also partially override local zoning and planning boards. He highlighted that bill, Senate Bill 400, in his State of the State speech to lawmakers this month. 

Still, HB 1177 faces a potential uphill climb; similar bills – such as a bill barring zoning ordinances that require minimum lot sizes above 10,000 square feet – have been voted down in the same Municipal and County Affairs Committee and on the House floor. 

For Vann, the draw of the “missing middle” housing model for younger residents can be seen within her own family.

Lily Beyer, Vann’s daughter, moved to Portsmouth eight years ago, Beyer told the committee in her own testimony. She needed a small place for herself and her dog. The house that she found fit into the visual profile of the neighborhood, is close to restaurants and attractions, and yet is divided into four smaller apartment units. 

It’s a model that Beyer now feels should be replicated in municipalities across the state. 

“In a lot of places, adding a couple of units inside an existing structure, no one’s gonna know,” Beyer said. “Walking down the street, you don’t know. You just see a place that’s vibrant and has people outside walking their dogs, and a place that people want to live. People like me, we want to live ‘stumbling home from the bar’ distance. We want to live ‘walk to the coffee shop and see my friends’ distance. We want to live in town.” 

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Ethan DeWitt
Ethan DeWitt

Ethan DeWitt is the New Hampshire Bulletin’s education reporter. Previously, he worked as the New Hampshire State House reporter for the Concord Monitor, covering the state, the Legislature, and the New Hampshire presidential primary. A Westmoreland native, Ethan started his career as the politics and health care reporter at the Keene Sentinel.