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Housing talk

Alton seminar discusses workforce housing

by Tim Croes
Staff Writer - The Baysider
April 11, 2012
ALTON — The Alton Planning Board hosted a forum on workforce housing on Tuesday, April 3.

Ben Frost of the New Hampshire Finance Authority and Linda Harvey of the Laconia Area Community Land Trust, were guest speakers during the forum.

Frost traced the origination of the Workforce Housing legislation and connected it back to a case in 1991, Britton vs. the Town of Chester.

"The obligation of every city and town is to provide a realistic opportunity for the development of affordable housing," Frost said. "Community means the region within which a municipality is situated."

In 2008, the law was established. It calls for reasonable and realistic opportunities for the development of workforce housing, including rental and multi-family housing.

A project must take into account the collective impact of all local land use regulations, the majority is residentially-zoned land area and lot size and density must be reasonable.

The workforce housing law defines affordable; meaning a family of three renting making 60 percent of the median house income, or owner of a family of four making 100 percent of median income. Age-restricted housing isn't included.

Frost explained that affordable is where no more than 30 percent should be spent on housing. For a renter, that is rent plus utilities, and for an owner, that is principal interest, taxes and utilities.

Frost explained that towns should develop inclusionary zoning as the best way to address the Workforce Housing Law.

He listed an example of allowing additional units on a property where a certain number were developed as affordable housing.

Frost explained that an applicant must notify the board that a workforce housing development is being proposed, and that the planning board would move forward with its normal process.

Upon approval, the applicant has 30 days to identify the cost impact of the conditions upon the economic viability of the project.

Frost said that ideally the applicant and the board would discuss economic issues during the application process.

An applicant can appeal a denial or conditions that have a substantial averse effect on the project's viability, and the burden of proof is on the developer. A hearing will be held within six months.

Frost announced that more than 50 communities have taken actions on workforce housing.

Frost displayed the median purchase price of primary homes in Belknap County. He said that housing values are back to 2003 values.

He also displayed the median gross rental cost in Belknap County, which have gone up.

He pointed to foreclosures as a reason for the increase in rental prices.

"This is an issue of supply and demand," Frost said.

The median income in Belknap County for a family of four in 2012 was listed as $68,600.

An affordable house would sell at $233,000. A rental family of three could afford a two-bedroom apartment with rent costing $930 a month, which includes rent plus utilities.

Frost answered the question of why affordable housing is needed. Housing affordability is a long-term issue. He pointed to the decade of increasing prices and sharply constrained supply that spurred the law.

He also said that economic growth depends on a ready supply of labor, and that despite the economic downturn, New Hampshire is still in comparatively good shape and house prices have not come down as much as elsewhere.

He pointed to examples throughout the state of successful workforce housing developments.

Harvey talked about the Laconia Area Community Trust, which was started about 20 years ago.

She said that the group that started the trust was a mixture of people in the area.

Harvey talked about "building permanent community assets."

She talked about the need for family housing and upgrading the housing stock in Laconia.

As part of the process, the trust identified three different communities.

"We did these gut rehabs," Harvey added. "We not only created units affordable to people, but it upgraded the streetscape."

Harvey explained that the trust, which is a non-profit organization, pays full property taxes when purchasing property.

She explained that the trust has moved into larger scale projects and has worked with the city of Laconia.

Harvey said that other communities started contacting the group about increasing the housing stock.

She explained that the focus of the trust is to help working families.

Harvey talked about working with the town of Meredith and other communities in the state.

She talked about keeping the cost of projects down by using different sources of affordable financing and charging lower rent than normal.

"Folks are really grateful to have a decent unit to live in," Harvey said. "They are just nice, safe units. We are about helping create homes."

A question was asked if a certain area is designated for workforce housing.

Ken McWilliams, the town planner, said he has been approached by a couple of developers about a workforce housing project.

Harvey talked about controlling the rent to insure that monthly rent would be kept at an affordable level.

The trust owns the land, but the land is sold to an owner, which brings the cost down.

Deed restrictions are put in place, which allow the initial money to be returned with a small percentage of appreciation to owner. Any additional profits stay with the trust.

"The citizens' interest are perfectly protected," Harvey added.

She talked about a home ownership center and financial success center that the trust helps run and work with people saving their homes from foreclosure.

A question was asked about the trust, and Harvey explained that her organization's work came 15 years before the Workforce Housing Law was passed in 2008.

Harvey said that any project that her organization has created would qualify as a workforce housing project.

A question was raised about the requirement for having a three-person household, but Frost said that numbers are adjusted for different household sizes.

Harvey said a single person could make up to $40,000 a year and qualify for housing from the trust.

Frost explained that most developers are looking to sell buildings, and Harvey added that there is no money in developing rental units.

Frost talked about a town having a provision in the zoning or regulations that a planning board could limit on who comes into each house.

A question was raised about who would monitor people moving into workforce housing projects, and Frost said that this service could be built into a fee and have it performed by a third party.

Frost said that he has no knowledge of any workforce housing projects being developed in Alton, and Harvey said there are no projects that the trust is planning Alton.

Members of the planning board agreed that stipulations need to be adopted in the planning board regulations.

Frost said that being pro-active is a smart move and not being pro-active could result in a lawsuit.

Harvey talked about a recent project that will be completed in the coming months in Wolfeboro.

Frost said the workforce housing isn't "very low income housing. It's for the forgotten middle."

A question was raised about each town having a certain percentage of workforce housing, and Frost said that the "fair share" isn't defined.

Frost explained the town would need to look at existing stock to assess its "fair share."

He warned the planning board about developers trying to use the workforce housing legislation to the town's disadvantage.

The above article was written thanks to effort of Bob Longabaugh, who provided a DVD copy of the event. The Workforce Housing Forum will be shown on LRPA-TV Channel 26. Please check www.lrpatv.org for a list of upcoming showings of the forum. A DVD copy of the forum is available to borrow at the Gilman Library.

Tim Croes can be reached at tcroes@salmonpress.com or 569-3126

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