Affordable Housing in Portsmouth: More Opportunities Missed

4.24.16 | Housing

On Thursday night (April 21st), a pair of opportunities for affordable housing units in Portsmouth came before the Planning Board.

One put it into its plan – and the proposed zoning change that would have allowed for it was voted down.  Another plan will put about 94 rental units off of Rt. 1 – and when the idea of including affordable units in the development was presented, that concept, too, was voted down.

These two votes are microcosms of why Portsmouth has seen exactly zero workforce or affordable housing units developed in the last 10+ years, with none in the pipeline, either.

In the first instance, a parcel of land sandwiched between a small row of low-traffic businesses and an overpass to I-95 was being discussed for rezoning – to the same type of commercial zoning as the other parcels on that side of the street on Maplewood Avenue.  On the other side of the street are a number of residences. There are also residences and an elementary school behind the parcel of land being discussed.

A small number of residents – some who live near the parcel, some who do not – spoke against the rezoning.  A few said the density of a ~30-unit pair of buildings on it would be too dense for the area, and might cause too much local congestion.  A few others noted that the developers who owned the property could do any number of things with it, once approved – from a museum to businesses. Of course, some of the same people also said it was spot zoning, arguing it was being rezoned for a specific project. Those two motives are mutually exclusive; regardless, the rezoning proposal was voted down decisively.

The challenge of affordable housing in Portsmouth is underscored by this vote. Property in most of Portsmouth – even outside of the downtown – is expensive by most standards, but this particular area seemed more viable for workforce housing than most. It was next to I-95 on one side, and an electrical supply company on the other. It is a short drive to the Rt. 1 bypass, but it is not downtown, or even a short walk to downtown. The envisioned development was not high-end relative to most downtown residential developments these days, and the largest rental units were two-bedrooms. Even the market-rate units were likely to fill a role hard to find in our market – new rentals that were not downtown.  For young professionals making decent money, but not ready to buy a home, this is very desirable, and is part of how our community attracts and retains excellent young talent at the stage where they are determining where to plant their roots.

But even in this area of Portsmouth, the price of real estate is not inexpensive, and the only way to begin nudging the supply-demand curves is through density and/or height. Height wasn’t the issue here – density was. If you just lowered the number of market-rate units in the concept, the argument went, this would be a better project.  But – like most similar projects in Portsmouth – it is the market-rate units which subsidize the workforce/affordable-rate units. And there are only two ways to get the math to work on the subsidy: Either you increase the number of market-rate units, or you increase the price you can charge for market-rate units. If you don’t allow for more height or density, you eliminate the “quantity” option, and end up with using the “quality” option. This is helping drive the growth in high-end residences, at the expense of any other type of residential development. With every opportunity to bend this curve that our community rejects, the math for remaining opportunities becomes more daunting – the theoretical supply of affordable housing that could be developed decreases, while the demand for such units stays constant or increases.

In the second instance, a 94-unit proposals was approved in the southern part of Portsmouth, tucked behind the Southgate Plaza’s cinema, near Water Country.  Because the development is far from downtown, in an area with a strip mall, a cinema, etc., the argument is that the units provide less-expensive, new units to the community housing stock – obviously positive. However, when the concept of including a 10% “workforce housing” element into the approval came up, a majority of the board declined to act on the concept.

In this case, density was not in question – it’s a relatively large project in a part of the community with little historic or aesthetic context to drive its design. There are a growing number of service industry jobs in the southern part of Portsmouth that could make for logical and short commuting patterns (even those walking to work in some cases). However, given a second opportunity the same evening to apply carrots-and-sticks to help move Portsmouth towards its first affordable housing units in well over a decade, consensus was not found.

The issue of diverse housing options is arguably the biggest challenge facing Portsmouth (and many other communities) in the near future, and failing to address this issue threatens to disrupt the virtuous cycle that has allowed our community to simultaneously enjoy a thriving economy, low tax increases for most residents, and outstanding public services over the past 10+ years.

If the distribution of our workforce, and the demography of our community, is further disrupted by a lopsided housing market, the impact on our transportation and parking systems will be significant. It will be seen in declining school enrollment, accelerated gentrification, and a further-aging community. And it will have serious impact on many of businesses, particularly in the hospitality, tourism, and service industries.

Perhaps the details of these two particular projects made them less-than-ideal for workforce/affordable housing – but the urgency for finding ways to get to yes is very real, and it is growing.