LITTLETON — In the North Country, housing is having a moment right now, said Kaela Tavares, community and economic development coordinator with the North Country Council.
Last week, Tavares was a keynote speaker during the 30th annual Littleton Area Chamber of Commerce economic development luncheon, where she spoke about the region’s workforce housing challenges — which include low inventory, high home and rent prices and municipal zoning regulations that, at the moment, can make building new housing difficult — and about possible solutions.
“We’re in an interesting time region-wide,” said Tavares, who outlined seven particular challenges in the North Country.
Population changes in the region during the past 20 years have seen more newcomers, fewer younger people, and more aging seniors in local communities, all of which have changed housing needs, she said.
Overall, for more than a decade, not a whole lot of new housing has been built, largely as a result of the 2008 Great Recession, which itself was largely the result of a financing system for housing that went wrong, said Tavares.
Industry-wide, across the nation, a lot of efforts were pulled back from housing production, she said.
“We put ourselves into this spot where we have a recipe for a perfect storm,” said Tavares. “Across New Hampshire, we are sitting in that perfect storm, where we have seen housing production slow over the past decade or so at the same time we are seeing a lot more demand around housing.”
Part of the work of North Country planners is to shift that needle to better meet the region’s needs and reach a place where seniors have homes to age in and stay connected to their communities and younger members of the workforce have opportunities to root themselves in the community and then grow and expand to meet their own family needs, said Tavares.
The first challenge is that the northern New Hampshire population in Coos, Grafton and Coos counties is declining at the same time the average age is going up, with many older people choosing to age in place in 2- or 3-bedroom homes.
“Which means that our housing markets aren’t turning over very quickly,” she said. “That 3-bedroom home that we saw historically as a place to raise a family now has a retired couple in there and that family isn’t coming up through … As our population ages, we really haven’t been building housing for a long time and we find we’re not having the normal turnover … That is stymieing our opportunities.”
The second challenge is a mismatch between supply and demand, where people want to live in specific communities, but those communities don’t always have available housing.
“Littleton has an unbelievable draw right now … but what we’re finding is the available housing stock isn’t in Littleton,” said Tavares. “It ends up being in some of our surrounding towns and they don’t have the same draw for our incoming residents …”
A growing trend among the millennial generation is being able to walk to places in town, a feature that makes communities like Littleton, Berlin, and Conway attractive, she said.
The third challenge is that the lower one’s income, the harder all housing problems become, making it a “trickle-down problem,” said Tavares.
Lower-income residents look for the most affordable housing that meets their income level, and that creates more competition for housing.
“Our low-wage workers are the ones with the hardest problems and they are also where we’re seeing most of our growth in new jobs,” she said. “More and more of our residents might start falling into that category.”
The fourth challenge is COVID-specific.
Even middle-wage earners are having a hard time affording the rising cost of homes during “an unbelievable increase in demand” for units during the pandemic, which has decreased supply and made it difficult for local people tied to the wages and jobs in the region to compete, said Tavares.
“That means they rent more,” she said.
The fifth challenge is not a lot of buy-in locally for comprehensive solutions or collective action, with many people willing to talk about the housing challenges but shy about joining a team to address it, said Tavares.
Problem number six is a tendency to make local solutions to what are regional problems.
“Nobody can think that Littleton itself, within the boundaries of the community, can provide the housing for everyone who works here or every person who’s tied to the community,” she said. “We can’t just look at it town by town anymore. The way we organize our lives makes housing a regional challenge … We have to do little more coordination between towns.”
And while the North Country’s problems are not unique to the region — similar housing challenges exist nationally, regionally and across New Hampshire — the seventh challenge is less structural capacity and capability to address the problems because of fewer skilled professionals and organizations in northern New Hampshire, said Tavares.
“I’m not all doom and gloom, though,” she said. “What we know about housing is a lot of the ways that we tried to solve this before are just not going to work right now. So we have to do them differently.”
The North Country might be at a place where everyone needs to lend a hand and discover how to lend it, said Tavares.
Regionally, the way housing is built, nonprofits like Affordable Housing, Education and Development Inc. utilize some grants and tax subsidies to build it, and developers build out one or two houses per contract per year, she said.
“We don’t have large development machines that are creating new subdivisions with lots of new homes and volume, so we have to figure out why the funding streams that exist aren’t working as well as they could here, particularly around nonprofit housing developers,” said Tavares. “We have to make it so the federal funds that are coming to us don’t set us back for being low-density areas, so if it’s a numbers game, that we show up better and we get more of that public resource up here to build it.”
In addition, developing new programs, such as assisting first-time home-buyers who are feeling the burden of increased prices and competition, is needed, she said.
Needed, too, are more regional vocational programs to train the next generation of home-builders, said Tavares.
Encouraging accessory dwelling units on existing properties will also help, she said.
“There’s a lot to do and it won’t happen quickly, unfortunately,” said Tavares.
A large part of the council’s current work involves partnering with a series of local towns on changing their zoning rules and guidelines and determining what is getting in the way of housing coming to their communities, she said.
The NCC is also in discussions with local employers, many of whom struggle with maintaining a sufficient workforce, partly because of a lack of housing, said Tavares.
“A lot of businesses around New Hampshire are talking about what does it mean to be part of this solution,” she said. “We’re working with a group in Littleton.”
Talks include where businesses can invest, bring their resources, and build advocacy to make sure the people who work in the area can live in the area, too, she said.
The end housing goal is to benefit the overall health of the region’s economy and communities, said Tavares.
She noted some “interesting, if alarming, facts” about rental changes in Grafton County, which, like the state as a whole, as seen a lot of changes in workforce housing.
In the last five years statewide, the average rent for a 2-bedroom apartment increased by 26 percent.
Grafton County is pulling that average up.
Five years ago, a 2-bedroom apartment cost less than an average of $1,000 a month in Grafton County, she said. The same unit today is nearly $1,700.
“Now is the moment for us to roll up our sleeves and say we can do better than a 70-percent increase for a two-bedroom apartment,” said Tavares.
She asked everyone to help in any way they can.
“We have to get everybody to buy in, even the neighbors of a project, which is often the toughest person to sell,” said Tavares. “We need town halls on board, but we also need all the residents.”