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Lebanon, Hartford meet on housing

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 9/29/2022 8:54:17 PM
Modified: 9/29/2022 8:54:21 PM

LEBANON — In a joint meeting to discuss regional housing needs, Lebanon and Hartford officials agreed on a couple of key points. One, that providing affordable housing options for a diversity of needs is a highly complex issue, intertwined with dilemmas and obstacles. Two, that meeting this demand will require collaboration and participation from all the Upper Valley communities, not just the largest municipalities.

On Tuesday, the Hartford Selectboard and Lebanon City Council convened in the auditorium of SAU 88, the former Seminary Hill School, in West Lebanon for a joint forum to share concerns and ideas about the region’s ongoing housing challenges, from a lack of quantity and diversity of housing types to unaffordable home prices and rents.

Both governing boards said that the high costs of housing, combined with limited housing stock, are forcing many individuals and families to move increasingly further away from the Lebanon and Hartford area to find an affordable place to live that meets their needs.

“We are hearing from businesses that they are not able to recruit or retain people, who are having to retract their job acceptances because they can’t find housing,” Lebanon City Councilor Karen Liot Hill said. “The lack of housing is causing headwinds on our ability to maintain our current vitality.”

Employers in Lebanon, Hartford and Hanover provide over 57,000 of the 70,000 total jobs in the Upper Valley, according to 2021 data collected by the Upper Valley Lake Sunapee Regional Planning Commission.

“The inability of people to live in the community where they work has a lot of negative effects, both on the individual and the community, who lose access to the individual’s ability to be a community member and make a meaningful contribution,” Hartford Selectboard Chairman Michael Hoyt said.

While the affordability of homes in the region was a central theme of the two-hour forum, board members said the housing challenges are far more complex and broad than meeting the needs of the region’s workforce.

Several officials referred to housing as “a life cycle,” meaning that a person’s housing needs typically change over one’s course of life.

For example, a young adult might prefer a small studio or one-bedroom apartment, then upgrade to a house to start a family, and possibly downsize to a smaller home or apartment once their children are adults and living on their own.

This life cycle results in housing being a “more multifaceted issue,” requiring officials to examine the diversity of a community’s housing options, as well as the availability of other services, such as public transportation or child care, board members said.

“It’s not just the cost of housing but the cost of living here,” Hoyt said, referring to the need of owning and maintaining a car in the Upper Valley due to the rural environment, the distance between communities and the lack of public transportation.

Officials also spoke about “the missing middle,” a term referring to the lack of affordable home options for families who require more space than a one- or two-bedroom apartment but who cannot afford a traditional single-family house built on a standalone parcel.

Lebanon is currently exploring an affordable housing model known as “cottage courts,” in which a number of detached dwellings are built on a single, shared parcel of land. Cottage courts are designed to maximize the number of housing units for single families within a space, reduce the overall environmental impact and provide a more affordable housing option to families.

“I think this is a way to get those entry-level homes, as well as homes for older people who want a smaller home,” Lebanon Mayor Timothy McNamara said.

Lebanon is also considering the creation of a “pattern zoning” program, which would streamline the city’s approval process to build a cottage court-type project and create a number of pre-approved housing designs that already meet the municipality’s zoning and planning requirements, McNamara said.

Pattern zoning “takes a lot of the risks out for the developer and reduces a lot of the upfront cost, because the developer can calculate what their opportunity costs are going to be,” explained McNamara, who serves as the associate director of Facilities Operations and Management at Dartmouth College

But board members also stressed that housing and population growth needs to be “sustainable and balanced” to avoid adverse impacts on the community’s quality of life.

“I think what makes Lebanon so special is that it’s a city that feels like a small town,” Hill said. “One of the things that concerns me about housing is how to increase the number of units in a sustainable way, for all different types of income levels, while maintaining the quality of life and the characteristics that people love about our community,” Hill said in regard to her biggest concerns about managing housing needs.

Several board members said that other Upper Valley communities will need to join the effort to increase housing options in their own communities or to help shoulder the financial costs of other communities to house more people.

Between 2010 and 2021, Lebanon and Hartford were the only Upper Valley communities to add more than 300 housing units, according to the Upper Valley Lake Sunapee Regional Planning Commission.

Since 2010, Lebanon has added 1,350 units and has approved an additional 1,260 units in development, while Hartford has added 371 units and approved another 35 units during that period. The next highest number of housing additions are in Hanover (188 units since 2010) and Sunapee (180 units since 2010).

“We are the Upper Valley, and we need to work together to find the solution,” Hartford Selectboard Vice Chairman Dan Fraser said. “Some towns have the infrastructure to allow that, and some towns don’t. So we need to all come to the table to figure out what we need from those towns that don’t have the infrastructure. Is it financial support? Or something different? I think the solutions are out there; we just need to think outside the box.”

“This is a problem that no one community can solve,” Lebanon City Councilor Erling Heistad said.

Lebanon City Councilor Douglas Whittlesey expressed optimism about the efforts, reminding the communities that the goal is to make meaningful progress.

“We don’t have to necessarily solve it to make progress and to move forward,” Whittlesey said. “Maybe we don’t solve it, but we make things a lot better. We need to keep that in mind so that we don’t get bogged down in the morass.”

The forum was co-moderated by Vital Communities, a community enrichment nonprofit in White River Junction, and NH Listens, a public engagement nonprofit created by the University of New Hampshire to help communities facilitate community dialogues.

Rob Schultz of Vital Communities said the forum only represents “an opening of a discussion about housing” aimed to bring two key communities immersed in the issue together.

Members of both boards were receptive to convening again in the future once boards have new updates, projects and plans to share.

Patrick Adrian can be reached at pfadrian25@gmail.com.




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