Looking for Housing Solutions – As One Solution Walks On By

5.2.16 | Housing

At tonight’s City Council meeting (May 2nd, 2016) the Council will consider a proposal to rezone a pair of parcels of lands on Maplewood Avenue in a way which would allow for increased density, workforce housing, and market-rate apartments and micro-apartments.

The density is critical, because it is what allows Portsmouth to see an increase in the exact type of housing stock the community needs most. As is the case in many other New Hampshire communities, our housing stock is increasingly mismatched with the demands of the changing population. Rentals, rather than owner-occupied; apartments, rather than homes; two-or-fewer bedrooms, rather than 3+ bedrooms; walkable distance from downtown, rather than suburban development. These are the shifts in our supply and demand curves, but our zoning regulations generally lag far behind these demographic trends.

Unfortunately, the proposed zoning change was opposed by most of the Planning Board a few weeks ago (the final vote was unanimously opposed, though the initial round of votes included two votes in favor). Two of the chief concerns were the optics of what could appear to be “contract zoning”, which is not permitted (when a zoning change would be made specifically to fit a project), as well as the concern that the development could look very different from what is being discussed (because there cannot be contract zoning). These are mutually exclusive concerns, though, and as long as both concerns are thrown into the public discourse for any workforce housing-related concept, it makes it virtually impossible to add significant density to a parcel of land.

The Council will deliberate and vote this evening, informed by this recommendation by the Planning Board. There is no public hearing on this matter, simply the opportunity to reach out to Councilor before the vote,and to speak for up to three minutes during the Public Comment section early in the Council meeting.  It’s an important decision – the message it sends for future opportunities is explicit, either positive or negative – so even a vote to delay a final vote on this matter until it can be integrated into a larger discussion about how the community increases such housing stock would be positive.

Councilors can be reached via email here (one email will be sent to all nine members), and tonight’s Council meeting begins at City Hall at 7 pm. The public comments section begins very early in the meeting, and is limited to three minutes per speaker, no more than 45 minutes total speaking time for all speakers combined.

At the same time, incidentally, Councilor Rebecca Perkins will be discussing a memo (it is the final two pages of the PDF at this link) she has prepared for the Council on the newly-formed Housing Committee. This committee was formed by Mayor Blalock in recognition of the tremendous deficit in workforce housing and high-density housing in Portsmouth, and its growing impact on our economy.

The first meeting of the Committee is May 11th at 8:30 am at City Hall (the entire schedule is in the memo).  Among other priorities, they’ll be figuring out how to bring workforce housing to Portsmouth. The irony is that an opportunity to do exactly that – and the evidence of the barriers which currently exist in reaching that goal – will be front and center earlier in the same meeting this evening.