January 19, 2006

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Manchester Publisher's Note: The living city
by Jody Reese

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin recently said the biggest hurdle to getting his city back up and running is finding enough workers, and the biggest hurdle to finding enough workers is findin those workers places to live.

It’s a problem that Manchester and southern New Hampshire also face, though in less dramatic terms. Years of restrictive zoning has created a housing shortage in Manchester, Hooksett, Bedford, Goffstown, Candia, Derry and Londonderry. The average home around here sells for $250,000 and rents for a decent one bedroom apartment hover around $750 a month. This means that someone who makes less than $30,000 a year can not afford to rent an apartment or buy a home.

Affordable housing is important for many reasons. For starters, it lowers the cost of doing business in Manchester, and that means cheaper goods and services for all of us. If someone can live here for $400 a month, they can take a job making $9 per hour. Lower housing costs mean there is more money left over to spend in local restaurants, on cars and other goods and services. Lower housing means people can save more. Lower housing makes it easier for people to start new businesses.

Manchester has the opportunity to be the main urban center of all of New Hampshire, Maine, Vermont and northern Massachusetts. To do this it needs more housing, and of that a large amount should be affordable to someone making $19,000 a year. That would mean apartments that rent for about $400 to $500 a month — something that doesn’t exist today.

And unlike education funding, this is an easy problem to solve. In fact, it would solve itself in a few years if government got out of the way.

That’s because this housing shortage has been created by restrictive zoning ordinances meant to prevent growth. We have designed this problem on purpose.

The reasoning is pretty straight forward: (1) New Hampshire’s tax structure of relying on property taxes for most of the education funding means that new homes and apartments create more cost to a community than they create in tax dollars. (2) People want to preserve the rural character of many area towns.

Of course communities should preserve green space, but that can be done without requiring lots sizes or parking. More land can be bought by local governments or land trusts and preserved, letting green tracts of land wind through communities.

It’s easy to do nothing about our housing problems. They are sort of like many of our growing waistlines. Of course, we should exercise and eat better, but it’s easy to put it off for another day.

It shouldn’t take a heart attack to make us do something about housing. The Board of Mayor and Aldermen should immediately make it easier to build multifamily units, reduce or completely eliminate parking requirements, relax rules to allow apartments to be built into homes and above commercial property and ease fire and access rules for historic-type properties to encourage the redevelopment of old properties.

In the towns around Manchester, zoning rules should allow for more apartments, density developments and reduce or eliminate lot size requirements.

Only when we address our housing problems will Manchester be able to grow into the vibrant city it can be.

Comments? Thoughts? Discuss this article and more at hippoflea.com