As a recent post at One Portsmouth suggested, the key to moving our community forward on the subject of workforce and affordable housing may be finding small wins (or, “silver bb’s”), rather than large projects (or, “silver bullets”). The lack of such housing in Portsmouth is due largely to market forces moving faster than our public decision-making process has moved. Past City Councils’ decisions to limit their own ability to steer development toward the community’s priorities (including workforce housing) by eliminating Conditional Use Permitting (or “CUPs”) has made creating the right market incentives even more difficult to do quickly.
While there are a number of efforts of various sizes in the early stages of the development pipeline in Portsmouth, a few efforts are further along that would bring workforce housing and micro apartments to Portsmouth. One such example is before the Portsmouth Planning Board on Thursday, April 21st, and although it is modest in size, it represents one of the “silver bb’s” that can demonstrate the potential for more and larger workforce housing projects in the future.
680 Maplewood Avenue, located near the I-95 bypass on that street, would require the extension of neighboring zoning to this property, in order to develop a property that would include townhouses and a significant number of rental units. As a recent Portsmouth Herald story wrote:
“The developers tried to get several variances from the city’s Board of Adjustment to build six townhouses on the front of the property at and a 4-story apartment building behind it with 24 rental units.
“At least six of the apartment units … will be offered as workforce housing units,” the plans for the development filed in City Hall stated. Plus, there would be four micro-units in the apartment building, 14 two-bedroom units and six 1-bedroom units…”
Earlier in 2016, the project’s developers went before the Board of Adjustment (BOA) to seek a series of variances, but the BOA thought seeking a zoning change was a more appropriate means of achieving the desired outcome. While the BOA voted down the requested variances, it was not because of the concept of the project (which has since been modified to become somewhat smaller). As the Herald wrote in February:
During the BOA hearing, Chairman David Witham said “the most appropriate avenue for this is a rezoning.”
“To expand the business district to include this lot makes a lot of sense to me,” Witham said. “… If there’s going to be overwhelming public support for either workforce housing or affordable housing, the city is always going to come up with these scenarios where the abutter are going to come out and they’re going to speak and they almost always win.”
He added if the city were looking for “a handful of lots” in the city to use for workforce housing “I would have to imagine this lot would fit in the top 10 on that list.”
As Witham suggests, virtually every workforce or affordable housing project – even those relatively modest in size – generate some opposition from abutters. The challenge with addressing workforce housing needs, however, is that the communal benefits over time are significant…but the community at large rarely engages publicly on any specific project. Narrow, though understandable, opposition will speak out against a specific project, and as Witham said, “they almost always win.”
On April 21st, at 7 pm, the Planning Board will hold a public hearing on this particular proposal at Portsmouth City Hall. The public notice is here, and it appears to be the first item on the agenda. If you are passionate about the need for progress on affordable and workforce housing, here is a chance to use your voice, and make a tangible difference. Nobody is suggesting that this or other similar projects will be the silver bullet – but it represents progress on arguably the number one challenge our community faces.