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In housing, New Hampshire’s most important issue, 2024 offers few major reforms

With the growing housing shortage and resulting skyrocketing real estate prices, housing is a top priority for Granite State residents. A June UNH Survey Center poll found that Granite State residents overwhelmingly believe housing is the state's most important issue.

Not surprisingly, this issue was also a top priority for lawmakers in 2024. And while some of the more ambitious housing proposals failed to pass both houses, lawmakers passed a handful of modest reforms to unlock New Hampshire's housing stock.

The following five bills have been passed by both the House and Senate and are either awaiting or have already received Governor Sununu's signature:

* House Bill 1065: “relating to requirements for sprinkler systems in residential buildings.”

* House Bill 1202: “relating to the issuance of permits for altering access roads to public streets and relating to the definition of disability or special needs for purposes of the child care scholarship program.”

* House Bill 1359: “relating to appeals of certain zoning decisions by residents.”

* House Bill 1361 (enacted): “relating to municipal land use regulation for manufactured housing and housing developments.”

* House Bill 1400: “relating to residential parking, tenancy law, evictions by unauthorized occupants, and residential zoning procedures.”

HB1065 adds an exception to the state fire code for certain multifamily dwellings. Current law requires existing multifamily dwellings with more than two residential units to have a fire suppression or sprinkler system. HB 1065 exempts existing buildings with no more than four residential units from this requirement unless sprinkler systems already exist on the property or are required for a nonresidential property.

HB 1065 also prevents local jurisdictions from enacting rules and regulations for residential sprinkler systems that are more stringent than the state's fire code.

Requiring three- and four-family homes to have fire suppression or sprinkler systems may discourage developers and property owners from converting two-family homes to four-family homes because their installation is too expensive.

HB1202 simplifies local permitting of driveways. Under this law, a municipality must issue a permit for a proposed driveway on residential property, including for use by multi-family dwellings, within 60 days of the property owner's application. This puts an end to lengthy permitting processes and prevents municipalities from wasting property owners' time with delays.

HB1359 restricts who exactly can appeal local land use board decisions by expanding the definition of “neighborhood owner.” Vexatious appeals of local zoning board land use decisions hinder residential development. Under current law, “any person whose property is located in New Hampshire and is adjacent to or directly across the street or river from the property reviewed by the local land use board” may appeal the use permit in question to the local zoning board.

According to HB 1359, a riparian is “any person whose property is located in New Hampshire and abuts the property under consideration by the local land use agency or is directly across the street or stream. 'Directly across the street or stream' is determined by lines drawn perpendicularly from all pairs of corner boundaries along the applicant's street or stream to pairs of projected points on a property line beyond the street or stream that intersect those perpendicular lines. Any property lying along the street or stream between any pair of projected points or within 50 feet of any projected point shall be considered a riparian.”

In other words, not everyone can claim to be a resident and therefore object to the decisions of the local planning authority regarding land use. In order to have the right to object, someone must live close enough to the property in question and therefore be able to claim to be significantly affected by the approved use.

HB1400which focuses on parking requirements and unauthorized occupancy, was one of the most high-profile housing bills of the year. Originally, the law prohibited municipalities from requiring more than one private parking space per housing unit. Under the version passed by both chambers, the law prohibits municipalities from requiring more than 1.5 parking spaces per unit for studio and one-bedroom apartments under 1,000 square feet and for multifamily housing with 10 or more units.

Local parking requirements are often a burden for developers and multifamily owners because so much land must be considered and reserved to accommodate them. While 1.5 is not as ambitious as 1, and owners of two- to nine-unit multifamily buildings must still submit to the whims of local authorities mandating two or sometimes more parking spaces per unit, 1.5 at least gives owners and developers of large apartment complexes the leeway to build without worrying about complying with overly strict parking regulations.

HB 1400 also allows municipalities to provide community renewal tax breaks when properties are converted from office, commercial or industrial buildings to residential. This would allow municipalities to temporarily freeze property taxes on buildings being converted to residential, thereby encouraging owners to make these conversions.

Sometimes local boards recommend changes to land use regulations that would allow for more residential development, only to find that those changes are rejected by voters. HB 1400 offers a remedy for that, too. It would allow cities without charters, village districts, and counties with unincorporated land to ask voters for permission to allow the local governing board to approve zoning changes without putting the proposed changes before voters. If voters agree, the local governing board could change zoning laws or maps by majority vote.

After being amended by the Senate, HB 1400 finally bans squatting in New Hampshire. A “squatter” is someone who lives on another person's property without the owner's permission and without legal title or ownership interest in the property.

With the wording “No person or entity other than a tenant, subtenant or silent tenant as defined in RSA 540-A:1, II shall occupy residential real property without the permission of the owner, landlord or his agent,” HB 1400 renders claims of “squatter's rights” in the Granite State without legal basis. This gives property owners back the right to control who occupies their private property.

HB1361which has already gone into effect, prohibits municipalities from banning manufactured housing. Manufactured housing is prefabricated housing that is transported to the construction site. They are an easy, quick and often inexpensive way to put more people in homes. Under HB 1361, municipalities can still regulate manufactured housing, but not to the extent of effectively banning it.

Each of these five bills strengthens property rights, reduces barriers to development, and makes it easier for state residents to build more housing through exemptions, greater freedoms, and/or regulatory reforms.

“Lawmakers have taken a number of small actions to alleviate the housing shortage, all of which have been about giving people a little more freedom in how they use their property,” said Jason Sorens, senior fellow at the American Institute for Economic Research. “The most impactful reform may be allowing housing developers to propose alternative parking plans if minimum requirements can be met by public transit, curbside parking or other options. But the session was also a missed opportunity, as the Senate rejected broader parking reform and the use of ADUs through legislation. They'll have to get back to the issue next year.”

Some of the more ambitious pro-housing bills that failed to make it to the governor's desk included HB 1215, HB 1291, and HB 1399. These bills represented attempts to extend the period during which new construction is protected from local regulatory changes, give property owners the right to add an additional accessory dwelling unit, and limit municipal restrictions on homeowners in urban residential areas who wish to convert a single-family home to a two-family home.

While these sweeping reforms did not pass the House, the reforms that did represent an important first step toward expanding private property rights throughout New Hampshire and reducing regulatory barriers to housing development.

Residents of the Granite State want more housing, enough to drive down prices. Whether they want it faster than legislators and local regulators are willing to provide it is a question that may not be answered until a future election.

Anna Harden

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