In the White Mountains region of New Hampshire, one of the nation’s earliest tourist destinations and a favored second-home location, the pronounced lack of affordable housing limits service industry opportunities for a would-be workforce. The drain on the economic sustainability of the broader community is already being felt: two of the region’s most popular tourist attractions have been forced to partially and temporarily close in high season, due to lack of staff. Looking ahead, a recent report projects that first-time home purchases will be down in New Hampshire in the next five to ten years. But, with a REALTOR® Party Smart Growth Action Grant, the 150-member White Mountain Board of REALTORS® (WMBR) has helped communities to envision solutions and begin to remove barriers to affordable housing by sponsoring design and planning charrettes in partnership with the Mount Washington Valley Housing Coalition (MWVHC.)
“To me, it’s a no-brainer!” states 2018 WMBR President Theresa Bernhardt, explaining that Victoria Laracy, the executive director of MWVHC, had reached out to the REALTORS® for help funding the charrettes. “We have access to these REALTOR® Party funds, and this is what we do: provide housing.” Two charrettes held in October 2017 were the third such project that WMBR has sponsored since 2013, each one building on the work of the previous charrettes. A charrette is an intensive design and planning exercise that brings together representatives of all stakeholder groups; in the towns of Bartlett and Conway last fall, that meant hard-working teams of planning officials, bankers, property representatives, REALTORS®, architects, engineers, site planners, construction estimators, neighbors, local businesses and workers in need of housing.
Laracy, whose organization has planned and hosted each of the programs, cuts to the chase: “These charrettes demonstrate how the economics of development need for zoning to be in place in order to achieve adequate affordable housing in a free market. In both Bartlett, where there is a 0% vacancy rate, and Conway, where the rate is 1%, our teams demonstrated that significant affordable housing could be created, with a reasonable rate of return for the developer, if zoning restrictions were changed, even slightly.” The official report from the October charrettes has been shared with the communities and local legislators, as a first step to address zoning updates. “This wouldn’t have been possible without the support from the REALTORS®,” she says.
Bernhardt, who was one of two REALTOR®-members of the Conway team, says, “It’s a fascinating process, watching completely well thought-out, viable plans being presented at 6:00 PM on what was a blank piece of paper at 9:00 AM. To have all these experts at the same table working on a given project involving real, available parcels of land, was an incredibly efficient and productive way to go about finding options and eliminating others.” She reiterates Laracy’s assertion that zoning was the stumbling block to affordable housing for both town teams: “Under current zoning, we discovered that the seven-acre parcel of land we were working with could only support 28 total units of housing, which was not an economically viable project for any developer. But if zoning were to allow for increased density, then 70 units could be built on the same parcel, twenty of which would be offered as affordable housing, with a near 8% annual return to the developer. Those are the kinds of numbers that make projects like this feasible. They clearly demonstrate why we need to work with our planning boards to change the zoning ordinances that are restricting affordable housing.” She adds that, in addition to an open community discussion at the outset of the process, the final charrette presentations were attended by over sixty local residents. “There is real concern, and real engagement. The REALTORS® are proud to be part of the group that is seeking solutions and moving them forward.”
An Overview of the October Charrette
The Design Reveal
To learn more about how the White Mountain Board of REALTORS® has been helping to pave the way for more affordable housing in its communities, contact 2018 WMBR President Theresa Bernhardt at 603-986-5286; or Victoria Laracy, Executive Director of the Mount Washington Valley Housing Coalition, at 603-662-5482.