Addressing Portsmouth’s housing needs…by looking for “silver bb’s”

3.25.16 | Housing

Whether your local passion is in transportation, urban design, parking, zoning, sustainability, workforce development, taxes, education, the economy, or the arts, you end up having to spend some time thinking about…housing.  Affordable or workforce housing one of those public policy challenges that everybody agrees needs addressing, but the search for a silver bullet has led to a lot of blanks being fired over the past 15+ years.  The lack of silver bullets, however, does not mean we cannot find silver bb’s.

First, a couple of points about where we stand today in Portsmouth.  The good news, in theory, is that there is no shortage of interest in building net new housing in Portsmouth.  A recent story in the Portsmouth Herald quoted City Planner Rick Taintor’s calculation that:

“Just looking at multi-family projects, not single-family projects, it looks like over the course of the next three to five years we may get to almost a 10 percent increase in our housing stock over where we were in 2010.”

Taintor pointed to 149 units that have been recently completed, 56 that are under construction, 246 that have been approved, 118 that are under review and 395 that are being considered for a grand total of 964.

“This is something that’s important to know,” Taintor said. “We’re going to have a significant growth in housing regardless of what happens in terms of zoning.”

And he added “none of these have any workforce housing units in them.”

The troubling news lies within those last few sentences.  It is not a question of whether or not additional housing will continue to be developed – housing units are being developed rapidly.  Rather, it is in whether we, as a community, can identify the right combination of “sticks and carrots” (largely through land use policy) that moves the market towards workforce or affordable housing.

As a quick note, while the terms “affordable” and “workforce” housing are frequently used interchangeably, they are not the same.  Typically, workforce housing implies a wider (and higher) range of household income that is meant to develop supply that can be covered with ~30% of the median household income of that range.  Affordable housing typically implies housing accessible to a somewhat lower range of household income, often with some form of public-sector subsidy. It’s a misnomer, frankly, because regardless of which type of housing stock we are discussing, they are all part of the community’s workforce, and to imply otherwise gives a negative connotation to a whole section of our workforce.

Over the years, there have been multiple attempts to develop more affordable housing options in Portsmouth, including a 2006 ordinance to provide increased incentives for increased density. Perhaps the minimum lot size required was too large to apply to very many projects, however. More recently, the elimination of conditional-use permitting has made it more difficult for the city to create specific “carrots” intended to achieve specific policy outcomes with communal benefits, such as workforce housing. Recent state-level legislation is also attempting to get at this challenge through increased development of accessory-dwelling units.

There are currently a number of proposals at various stages of discussion – one on Maplewood Avenue, one at the Parrott Avenue parking lot, one at Southgate Plaza, micro-housing related to parking structures, proposals related to the “Frank Jones” area, etc. It appears there is renewed political and community desire to make tangible progress in the form of one or more workforce/affordable housing projects somewhere in Portsmouth, even if those project(s) are relatively modest in the number of units produced.

There is no obvious silver bullet on the horizon – a single project that would singlehandedly change the supply-demand curve that currently drives residential prices upward. There are potentially many silver “bb’s”, though – that can begin to flatten the curve, and can demonstrate what can be done throughout Portsmouth and the Seacoast.