Employers, nonprofits and lawmakers look for ways to increase housing stock in Upper Valley

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    When Dan Severance moved into the Wentworth Community Housing building in White River Junction, Vt., from his former apartment in Enfield last July, he cut his commute time to his job at Hypertherm in half. "It's just a huge stress relief," he said of the $1,175 rent with utilities included compared to paying $25 less in rent, but also paying for heat and electricity. Severance and his son Zach, 5, arrives home with school projects and groceries on Friday, Nov. 15, 2019. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News photographs — James M. Patterson

  • Night falls over the Wentworth Community Housing building in White River Junction, Vt., Friday, Nov. 15, 2019. The building, owned by Twin Pines Housing, was completed in July and provides housing for people making up to 120% of Windsor County's median income. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • When Dan Severance started looking early in 2019, he found rents were between $1, 500 and $1,600 for two bedroom apartments close to his job manufacturing plasma cutting parts at Hypertherm in Hanover. With his annual income of almost $49,000 he learned that he qualified to apply for housing at Wentworth, a Twin Pines Housing development. He said the process was tedious because of the paperwork involved, but worthwhile. Severance, a 2004 graduate of Hartford High School with a degree in business technology and management from Vermont Technical College, brings a snack for his son Zach, 5, as they settle into their weekend in White River Junction, Vt., Friday, Nov. 15, 2019. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — James M. Patterson

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 11/16/2019 10:20:52 PM
Modified: 11/16/2019 10:20:46 PM

WILDER — Luke Parmenter, a 41-year-old Hartford High School graduate, works three full-time jobs to make ends meet for his family.

As a direct care provider, Parmenter cares for his wife’s grandmother in West Lebanon for part of the week; at other times he cares for his ex-wife’s son with autism and at still others he cares for his mother, who lost the use of her right side after a stroke last year.

A big chunk of Parmenter’s roughly $15 an hour pay goes to cover the $1,750 in rent plus utilities his family pays each month for a four-bedroom, two-bath home in Wilder. Though he has stayed in Wilder because it’s where he grew up and is near his extended family, he and his wife have considered moving to a home they inherited in North Carolina once his 16-year-old triplets graduate from high school.

“The cost of life is cheaper down there,” he said. “It would be stupid not to (move). I’m literally working myself to death.”

Parmenter’s not alone. About half of renters and a quarter of homeowners in the Upper Valley — 15,000 to 20,000 households — are spending more than 30% of their income on housing, said Kevin Geiger, senior planner for the Woodstock-based Two Rivers-Ottauquechee Regional Commission.

At a basic level, Geiger said there are three ways to tackle the problem: Make the homes people are living in cheaper, increase wages or increase the housing stock.

“Everything that we have says we need more housing stock,” Geiger said.

It’s not just about cost, either. There’s not enough housing “no matter how much money you have,” said Mike Kiess, workforce housing coordinator at the White River Junction-based nonprofit Vital Communities.

Planners in the region for years have estimated that the Upper Valley needs about 5,000 new units. A recent study by Vital Communities and the Upper Valley Lake Sunapee Regional Planning Commission found that the Upper Valley is creating about 240 new units of housing this year, not nearly enough and not all at an affordable price point, Geiger said.

The housing crunch is on almost everyone’s mind these days: from residents forced to make long commutes because they can’t find housing closer to work, to employers who are struggling to recruit employees, to lawmakers worried about the region’s economy and municipalities trying to sort out what kind of development their infrastructure can support.

Efforts to tackle the problem are underway in New Hampshire, Vermont and beyond. the Two Rivers, the Upper Valley Lake Sunapee and the Southern Windsor County regional planning commissions are collaborating to study not just what type of housing is needed and where, but what the obstacles to constructing it might be and how they might be overcome.

In addition, New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu recently put forward a plan to address his state’s housing shortage, and legislators in both states are trying to find ways to encourage the construction of residential properties close to where people work.

Here in the Upper Valley, employers such as Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center and Dartmouth College are looking to partner with developers to construct new housing near the Route 120 corridor and the campus in Hanover.

Tom Goins, Dartmouth-Hitchcock’s vice president of facilities, said hospital system employees could use at least 800 additional units right now. And that demand will only increase once D-H completes a proposed $130 million expansion at DHMC in 2022.

“I’d love to get ahead of that,” Goins said.

To that end, Goins said D-H is currently working with a consulting firm to find a developer to build housing on a lot the hospital system owns on the Hanover-Lebanon border off Route 120 behind Jesse’s Steakhouse and north of Centerra Marketplace. Though the site is steep, Goins said putting residences there would make it easy for employees to commute to the hospital and put them close to the shops and other amenities in Centerra.

“Younger folks love the idea of not owning a car,” Goins said.

Lebanon officials are mulling a request to rezone the parcel that would allow for residential construction there.

Dartmouth College also is feeling the housing crunch and told those gathered earlier this month at a real estate breakfast at the Fireside Inn & Suites in West Lebanon that it needs about 350 new units for graduate students and about 150 for employees. To that end, Dartmouth has been exploring the idea of building up to 300 new units on property it owns on Mount Support Road.

It’s going to take efforts of all kinds to address the housing shortage in the region, Kiess said.

“One size is not ‘fit all’ here,” Kiess said.

The effort by the three regional planning commissions, known as Keys to the Valley, is in its early days, but by the end of next year they expect to have finished gathering and analyzing information about the 67 towns in their combined territories, including the quantity and types of housing that’s needed in each community.

Geiger, of Two Rivers, said he expects to find that the obstacles to building new housing include regulatory issues, such as zoning restrictions; infrastructure limitations, such as access to water and sewer; community opposition; energy costs; and difficulty finding people in the trades to do the actual building.

The data-gathering piece will include talking with builders, Realtors, banks, employers, municipalities and other community members about the challenges they see in making these projects happen, Geiger said. It will also include looking at data available through the U.S. Census Bureau, real estate listings and closings.

The group is in the midst of hiring a consultant to tackle the social aspects of housing in the Upper Valley, such as what residents in the region “think and feel” about housing they want and what they’d like to see developed near them, according to a request for proposals on the project’s website. The commissions want to know what people of different demographic groups are looking for, including older residents and new arrivals, especially new workers.

It was with the economy in mind that Sununu’s task force announced “Recommendations and Plan to Address New Hampshire’s Housing Shortage” late last month. The task force included state Rep. Gates Lucas, R-Sunapee, as well as other state lawmakers, municipal leaders, and planners and housing developers.

One bill the task force is proposing would improve training for municipal zoning and planning board members, create a mandatory timeline for courts in land-use decisions and increase transparency in fees.

Another would allow tax-increment finance districts to go toward for residential housing, expand the Community Revitalization Tax Relief Program, create a business profits tax incentive for new workforce housing, reduce the real estate transfer tax for homes under $300,000, and create an incentive program for municipalities to foster a “friendly regulatory environment for housing production,” according to the task force’s plan.

“I got involved because I thought it was an important problem to solve in order to retain New Hampshire’s young workforce,” Lucas said in an email. “The bills aim to enhance local control, improve process predictability, and accelerate investment in housing.”

Lawmakers in Vermont also are focused on the problem. The Vermont Senate Economic Development, Housing and General Affairs Committee has been touring the state and visited White River Junction in September. State Sen. Alison Clarkson, D-Woodstock, is the vice chair of that committee and said in a phone interview last week that the primary focus in terms of housing issues this session will be getting approval for a $50 million housing bond.

“In the Upper Valley … it’s expensive, and we need more of it,” Clarkson said.

The $50 million bond, which didn’t get through last session, would be used to construct new housing, to renovate existing buildings and to incentivize private owners to bring more housing units online, she said.

Andrew Winter, executive director of the White River Junction-based nonprofit housing developer Twin Pines, welcomed the attention the issue of housing is getting from lawmakers, employers and planners.

“Housing is a big impediment to the long-term well-being of our state and our region,” said Winter, whose nonprofit recently opened new apartment complexes for people with mixed incomes in West Lebanon and White River Junction.

All told, Twin Pines now has about 500 units of multi-family housing in its portfolio, as well as 50 for-sale homes in a homeownership program.

One of the biggest challenges Winter said communities face is the availability of land, especially sites that are zoned for multifamily housing that is near public water and sewer lines. Developers want to know if there is water and sewer available and what it’s going to cost connect, he said.

“That from my perspective is a huge issue that we’ve got to grapple with,” he said.

For his part, Winter would like to see more federal investment in municipal sewer and water systems.

Also moving forward, Winter said he hopes communities will relax parking standards for housing near walkable town centers that make it less necessary for residents to own cars.

He welcomed the Sununu task force’s recommendations about predictable timelines for development, noting that “time is money.”

Steve Schneider, the executive director of the Lebanon-based Upper Valley Lake Sunapee Regional Planning Commission, also welcomed Sununu’s task force’s proposals, though he wasn’t certain they would go far enough to address the housing shortage.

“It’s going to take a lot of different programs and approaches to make substantial progress,” Schneider said. “Hopefully this isn’t the end of the conversation.”

In the meantime, some groups are finding solutions of their own. For example, The Thompson Center in Woodstock is now putting together a list of people interested in sharing their homes and those seeking a home who might be willing to help with tasks such as taking out the garbage or shoveling the walkway in order to help offset the cost of rent, said Deanna Jones, the center’s executive director.

Based on a model created by the Barre, Vt.-based Home Share Now, which has recently merged with the Burlington-based HomeShare Vermont, staff at the Thompson will help match homesharers with people looking for a place to live, Jones said.

The idea is to better use some of the region’s existing housing stock, while at the same time helping older residents feel more secure in their homes and provide them with some socialization, Jones said.

“It can be just a little bit of help (and) reassurance for older community members (who) might really benefit from having someone else in their home,” she said.

For his part, Parmenter plans to purchase the Wilder home his family has been renting and, if he and his wife do decide to move to North Carolina in a few years, they plan to rent it out.

That income will “make our living down south a little bit easier,” he said.

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at ndoyleburr@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.

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