New Hampshire’s housing bills that made it – and didn’t – in 2024

By ETHAN DEWITT

New Hampshire Bulletin

Published: 06-21-2024 5:30 PM

New Hampshire’s housing supply crisis has persisted for another year. And housing advocates are calling the 2024 legislative session a mixed bag. 

“I think there were some important wins,” said Elissa Margolin, director of New Hampshire Housing Action, an advocacy group, in an interview. “Given the severity of the issue, I wish there had been more.”

To Margolin, the biennium started in 2023 with plenty of energy: Many of the newly elected lawmakers had mentioned housing on the campaign trail, polls showed voters were concerned about housing availability, and House Speaker Sherman Packard created a special committee on housing, with the specific mandate to propose legislation that would increase living units. 

By the end of the session, though, many of the more ambitious efforts had fallen short. 

Still, some bills did make it over and are heading to Gov. Chris Sununu’s desk. Here’s an overview of what made it and what didn’t. 

Failed: Expansion of ADUs

One approach housing advocates are using to tackle the housing shortage is “infill housing,” in which homeowners develop apartment units inside existing houses and structures. But in many parts of the state, landowners are barred from doing so because they live in single-family zoning districts.

Pro-housing lawmakers have proposed addressing this with legislation to override those local zoning codes and give homeowners the right to add units themselves. Those bills have all failed, usually without passing the House.

But this year, one such bill did pass the House. House Bill 1291 would allow homeowners to build two accessory dwelling units by right – up from the current law’s cap of one – and allow those ADUs to be detached from the primary dwelling. 

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The bill passed the House, 220-143, but it fell in the Senate, after some Republicans raised concerns that it could allow development that would devalue properties of neighbors who chose to move to single-family districts. 

Passed: Incentives to convert businesses to residences

While the ADU expansion effort failed, the House and Senate did manage to pass House Bill 1400, an omnibus bill that combined a number of provisions to attempt to encourage more housing production. That bill is heading to Gov. Chris Sununu’s desk. 

One piece of HB 1400 allows towns to create tax incentives for developers to convert office and commercial space into residential spaces. The bill would allow town residents to vote to create the tax incentives at town meeting; the tax relief would be capped at five years.

Passed: Fewer parking restrictions

Another part of HB 1400 would limit cities and towns from passing certain parking requirements for certain developments. For studio and one-bedroom units up to 1,000 square feet, cities and towns would not be able to require more than 1.5 parking spaces per unit, under the bill. And they would not be allowed to require more than 1.5 parking spaces for units for multifamily developments with 10 or more units.

Those restrictions are a compromise from those in the original bill, which limited parking requirements to 1.5 spaces per unit for all residential housing in New Hampshire. But housing advocates say the final language will still help prevent cities and towns from passing zoning codes that require developers to plan large, unwieldy, and often unworkable parking lots for new housing.

HB 1400 would also require that municipal zoning and planning committees accept “alternative parking solutions” for their development, so long as they meet the demand. Those alternatives can include agreements for offsite parking; rideshare company agreements; public transportation; and walkability. Advocates say that measure will allow more developments in denser towns and cities in which parking is more difficult to secure, but opponents warned it could pass the responsibility of finding parking onto municipalities.

Nick Taylor, executive director of the Workforce Housing Coalition of the Greater Seacoast, said the bill would allow developers to tailor parking options to residents’ needs.

“That is going to make a real impact, especially for workforce and affordable housing developments where folks are less likely to have two cars,” he said in an interview. “People might be walking to work, so that will make a real difference.” 

Passed: Faster zoning law changes

HB 1400 would also usher in another tool for smaller communities: The ability to fast-track zoning code changes. Under the bill, a town could vote to empower their select board or other representative body to make zoning code changes themselves throughout the year – without needing to take proposals to town meeting every year. 

The bill is enabling and requires the town to pass a warrant article that gives that power. But Rep. Josh Yokela, a Fremont Republican, said it should enable towns to respond faster to zoning problems and could encourage more pro-housing zoning measures to pass. 

“If an issue is brought up in, say, June, and it’s identified and the language is drafted and all their I’s and T’s are dotted, why do they have to wait all the way for town meeting the next year?” Yokela said in an interview. “If that language is, you know, ready, then why can’t it just go into effect?”

Failed: An expansion of the affordable housing fund

The Legislature did not pass Senate Bill 454, which would have doubled the amount of revenue the state sends from real estate transfer tax into the affordable housing fund – from $5 million per year to $10 million per year.

That effort was sponsored by Sen. Dan Innis, a Bradford Republican, and voted through the Senate unanimously, but it was tabled by the House, 180-176.

Margolin said the failure was disappointing because the fund – which is administered by New Hampshire Housing – ensures that not all developments are for higher incomes.

“You’re not going to end up with affordability covenants and you’re not going to end up with long-term affordability for New Hampshire’s workforce if we don’t have a robust funding stream for our trust fund,” she said. 

Passed: Easier laws for sprinklers, driveways, and manufactured homes

Lawmakers passed some bills that advocates say would address small but meaningful hurdles for developers. One of those, House Bill 1065, concerns sprinklers.

Currently, the state fire code exempts one- or two-family residential homes from the need to install an automatic indoor sprinkler system in case of fires. But homes with more families are required to have them. 

HB 1065 would extend that exemption to three-family and four-family units – as well as manufactured homes. And the bill would bar cities and towns from adopting any fire codes that are more stringent than the state code when it comes to sprinkler requirements. 

Another bill would make it easier for homeowners and developers to get state approvals for driveways. House Bill 1202 would require the Department of Transportation to approve applications within 60 days for any residential property owner who wants to construct a driveway, provided that it is not a “major driveway.”

Both bills are headed to the governor’s desk. And both could make a difference for developments, housing supporters argue. 

“Delays often equal more money being spent, and so that increases the cost of the development as a whole, and especially when we have the affordability crisis, we wanted to address whatever regulations that might hamper that,” said Yokela.

“When we think about the missing middle housing, the sprinkler bill is a big deal, and that’s going to save tens of thousands of dollars in costs for conversions of single-families to duplexes or triplexes,” said Taylor. “And that’s meaningful.”