Affordable Housing Finds a Home in New Hampshire

What's the first phrase that "New Hampshire" brings to mind? Do you think "town hall meeting," "tax-free liquor" or "outer Boston suburb"? You'd get, at most, partial credit for any of those answers.

But if you say "first state in the union to get real about housing for working people," you'd be in a smart position to talk -- and even to invest. Because, indeed, the Granite State has passed the most intelligent law in the country to help middle-class people live near their jobs.

And it's working.

The measure, known as the "Workforce Housing Law," operates like this: Any developer who suspects that a town has stalled on a project that provides "workforce housing" can take the town to court and get a review within six months. It defines workforce housing generously as dwelling places affordable to renters who make 60 percent or less of an area's median income, or to buyers who earn less than the area's median income.

Since the law became official on Jan. 1, towns with names like Londonderry, Stratham and Manchester have endorsed it -- making New Hampshire an unlikely beacon in the national fog over how to create affordable housing for middle-income families.

The law grew out of the interpretation of a 1991 lawsuit and, according to New Hampshire Housing Finance Authority spokesperson Ben Frost, some careful political ballet. It exempts projects that are mostly for singles or couples or retirees. And it leaves towns free to impose restrictions over environmental concerns, including water access. (For a surprisingly legible rundown of the law, view this presentation.)

Most important, it proves that people can live in close quarters in a manner that benefits developers, local businesses and the public coffers. Robert Tourigny is head of NeighborWorks of Greater Manchester, a local chapter of a national housing nonprofit. He e-mailed Frost while the housing-authority spokesperson was addressing a conference in New York, announcing to him that a 16-unit project would go forward.

I caught up with Tourigny via e-mail later. "If not for the recently passed workforce housing legislation, this project would not be happening," he said. "This will be built on a 1.67-acre site. That's 10 units per acre! High-density in these towns is usually considered three or four units per acre."

If our economy is really recovering, we're going to add jobs faster than we add land for new housing or supply financing to rehab the housing that was abandoned in the subprime mess. And our leadership from Washington is muddled on the question of how a developer can rise above local flak. A law like New Hampshire's could be a bellwether as states struggle to provide a trustworthy channel for growth.

Looking to buy near Manchester, NH? Visit our resources at AOL Real Estate.
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