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Wednesday, October 9, 2013

How would you make housing more affordable for families in Portsmouth?


  1. This is a complex issue because it has many different facets. First, Portsmouth does have a relatively large proportion of housing for families that are low income and we can continue to make improvements to that housing stock. Second, there are tax breaks (to the extent allowed by state law) that we have put in place for elderly, disables, and veterans who own their homes. But the most challenging is to add more housing stock for those who earn modest incomes and don’t qualify for other support. I chaired a commission to attempt to do so in Portsmouth; one of the ideas we put in place were density incentives to encourage developers to build more affordable work force housing. Alas, each time the neighbors have opposed developing modest-priced housing for workers whether in Atlantic Heights, in the Bartlett Street area, or in the Cottage Street neighborhood. But we need to keep trying. I think a good option will be the redevelopment of Route 1 where the Council has enacted zoning that provides incentives for mixed use cluster-like developments of residences and small commercial operations.
    Christine Dwyer

  2. This is a difficult question to answer. Pressures on housing costs and the value of land in Portsmouth works against affordable housing, the law of supply and demand. Portsmouth does have some "affordable" housing, but obviously not enough. The solution has to be a combination of zoning, tax breaks, private/public arrangements to keep some housing more affordable, making more units available by maximizing underused second and third story units in the downtown which will require parking, Federal/State aid for housing for seniors, vets, disabled etc.

  3. Portsmouth has very little if any affordable housing in the neighborhoods. If there is any in the future, it should be distributed in different neighborhoods and not all in one place. Because Portsmouth is a very desirable place to live and real estate for the most part is very expensive, I don;t see affordable housing being very popular and it seems there are few advocates for this issue.
    Bob Lister-RJL

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  5. This is a challenging question. The downtown is where most of the development is happening these days and the places have high prices or high rent. My son graduated from Portsmouth High School and moved out of the city because he couldn't afford living here. The city boarding apartments are a threatened species in the city. Habitat for humanity has had trouble finding land. The Portsmouth subsidized housing doesn't always offer a safe area of the city to live in. The city has some first time buyer programs but they might not be universally known. Beyond public housing, we need to find a way to acquire land and to partner with a companies to create that kind of housing rather than the high-end properties that are currently being built.

  6. The city directly affects affordable housing. The budget has for many years been increasing at about twice the rate of inflation. Let's just consider the last ten years and the affect such increases have on renters.

    The typical duplex in Portsmouth is valued at $350,000 (I'm a Real Estate Appraiser and keep track of such things.) A renter is in essence responsible for half the property tax. Currently inflation is running at 1.6%. Let's assume for a moment that the renter's income increases at this pace.

    If the Council is true to form and increases the budget at twice the rate of inflation, then the renter is responsible for an amount of money 1.6% greater than what their pay is increasing at. For the renter in the duplex, this translates into only 2 bags of groceries above inflation for that year. Remember their pay has not kept pace with this. But still only 2 bags of groceries isn't bad. But now, extend that out over ten years. In that tenth year that renter is now responsible of 20 bags of groceries above what their pay has increased at. Each year the 2 bags have been added to the prior.

    At some point that renter has to decide to either buy food or pay rent.

    These budget increases have been happening since at least 1995 and there were years when inflation was much greater than 1.6%

    We make housing affordable when we control our spending.

  7. Jim Splaine

    Right now, we're in a Catch 22 -- meaning that since Portsmouth is becoming a more desirable place to live, with more development in our Downtown and other parts of the city, more people want to live here. That increases the value of homes, and to pay for that home owners and the landlords of available housing put set their rents higher. Since there is a market for rentals, landlords can get the price of rent for what they ask.
    I think we have to allow developers to come up with new "models" of housing. I live in what some people call a "mobile home park," but the 34 units where I live are homes just like any other -- just not built over a hole in the ground. Comparatively speaking, the housing in my neighborhood is affordable. Decent older, and some small new, mobile homes can be bought for $30,000 and less. Larger nice new ones might go to $50,000 or so, which is less than have the price of even basic stick-built housing or condos.
    Shared kitchens and common areas in well-designed housing providing studio, one, and two-bedroom units would be much cheaper to own or rent than stand-alone structures, and more than satisfy many singles and couples, or small families. More developers would build such units for younger and older people if encouraged. It's done all around the country, and the world. We just have to allow it under our zoning laws, and attract it.

  8. In order to have an affordable Portsmouth we must keep the taxes to a level that people can afford to pay. During the last budget secession the taxes were raised by 4 % this was a big increase for many residents in our city. If you are on social security the federal government increase was much lower. Depending on the program it was about a 1.5 % increase. Our city will not be affordable if we raise things by 4 % when people only received 1.5% increase. Because of this I did not vote for the last budget.

  9. Keeping Portsmouth an affordable place to live is critical if we want to maintain a diverse community of people, young and old, working in a full range of occupations. First, it is essential that we preserve housing that is already affordable given the current trend of turning apartments into expensive condominums. Each time we approve one of these projects, we lose more rental housing. I think that this loss of housing is bad for the city. We need to not only preserve our existing affordable housing, but we also need to expand the supply. We have so many seniors who have trouble staying in their homes, are ready to downsize and would love to have a safe, clean affordable apartment right here in Portsmouth. Unfortunately, we don't have enough of that kind of housing to meet the demand. Broad community support will be required to develop more affordable housing, but this is something that we can do and we must do to protect the rich fabric of our community for the future.

  10. Portsmouth's Master Plan itself mandates that the City encourage and support affordable housing and make it available, and in fact the City is already doing quite a few things to achieve those goals. Among other things, the City has made available about 1,200 units of assisted rental housing units in Portsmouth and has issued approximately 200 housing subsidy vouchers that are administered by the Portsmouth Housing Authority, enabling low and moderate income renters to afford housing in the private market. The City has also worked with the Portsmouth Housing Authority to use historic preservation tax credits, low income housing tax credits, and other funding sources to convert the “1895 Building” adjacent to City Hall into 20 units of affordable senior housing. The City also provides incentive “affordable housing challenge grants” to nonprofit organizations to encourage the development and preservation of affordable housing in Portsmouth.

    Beyond that, not much has been done, and perhaps nothing can be. The unfortunate reality is that real estate prices have risen so dramatically in the last fifteen years that, absent government intervention, there is probably little that can be done to make Portsmouth affordable for minimum wage earners and others at the lower end of the income scale. So far, such government intervention has been lacking, even though the City’s Master Plan suggests that the City should become involved in new development to make sure that affordable housing units are created. Although the Master Plan also suggests that the City enter into public-private partnerships with developers to increase affordable housing, new residential condominiums in the downtown area are currently selling for $400,000 and upward, and consequently developers are likely to have little interest in entering into such partnerships, inasmuch as construction of housing in the purely private market is currently far too profitable.

    Unfortunately, there is little that can be done about these problems unless the City Council and the city administration start flexing their muscles. Until the City holds the developers’ feet to the fire and insists that affordable housing units be set aside as a condition for approval of their projects, not much is likely to change.