The greater Upper Valley region has a housing crisis. Here’s what we can do about it.
The Keys to the Valley Initiative was undertaken by three regional planning commissions – the Upper Valley Lake Sunapee Regional Planning Commission of New Hampshire, and the Two Rivers-Ottauquechee Regional and Mount Ascutney Regional Commissions of Vermont. The three commissions, called the “Tri-Commission”, cover 67 communities on both sides of the Connecticut River of the greater Upper Valley.
Our region’s economic well-being and quality of life depends on us all rising to the challenge of the housing crisis. For the Regional Planning Commissions (MARC, TRORC, and UVLSRPC) that means Keys to the Valley. This initiative seeks to inform and focus the rising housing efforts, in the Upper Valley and its neighboring communities, with an action plan, toolbox of solutions & data, and honest conversations.
The Keys to the Valley project documents our need for homes across a bi-state, 67-town region, and presents a roadmap for tackling this crisis at the local, regional, and statewide level. The scale of this challenge calls for both immediate action as well as further study and conversations.
During this project, we have come to understand several critical concepts:
We have a housing crisis, and it is getting worse. It is not a small problem. Tens of thousands of individuals and families in the region struggle to afford their home, while others lack access to needed in-home supportive services. Some remain without permanent shelter, fear eviction, or reside in unsafe conditions.
It is not someone’s problem, it is our problem. Our communities’ economic and and social fabric are suffering. To address the housing crisis will require us all – big employers, elected officials, private builders, non-profits, community and faith groups, and residents – to rise to meet its challenge.
Our third Key understanding – it is a tough problem that requires many different solutions in tandem that are fit to each place and its people.
Our housing problem is not something special. This problem exists around the nation in places just like ours, from higher-priced hotspots to former industrial towns. Many communities are working to try to solve this problem, and none have solved it. However, many have taken small measures that do help and we have tried to learn from them. There are some solutions to the housing crisis, but no silver bullet.
The two main systems we have relied on to provide housing – the private market and some limited government programs run through non-profits – are failing to meet the need and in their current form will continue to fail. The private development market has little financial incentive to build homes, for ownership or rental, for the majority of our residents at prices we can afford. Federal government programs meant to provide housing for those of us with low incomes have been crucial in preventing homelessness, but are too slow, too costly, and dwarfed by the need.
With our understanding of this situation, and a good grasp of what tools are available, action is needed. There are many steps that individuals, businesses, communities and non-profits can take, some of them are very simple and easy. Some tools we have already, others will need to be created. Together, by undertaking dozens of actions under the six Key action areas below, we can take meaningful strides to meet our housing challenges and make our communities better places to live, our economy stronger, and our residents healthier and happier.
With these understandings of our housing crisis in mind, our committee has identified a series of actions and related tools to address the challenges facing our region’s homes.
Key Action Area A: Spread knowledge of the region’s housing needs
To increase public awareness of the region’s housing needs and opportunities, and to build acceptance of efforts to address these needs. This involves community outreach and coordination, sharing information and relatable stories, and developing metrics for monitoring the region’s housing needs.
To ensure the availability of safe and sanitary housing for all residents, and their ability to get housing that is needed. This includes providing adequate emergency housing facilities; making sure that rental units meet all applicable codes for safe and sanitary habitation; reducing exposure to mold and lead hazards, and improving the knowledge of and compliance with legal requirements, such as the Fair Housing Law. Housing conditions are known to have a significant impact on physical and mental health.
To sustain existing homes in good condition and for use by year-round residents. This includes maintaining or improving the conditions of existing homes; keeping existing owner-occupied and renter-occupied homes as primary residences; and discouraging conversion to secondary homes or short-term rentals.
To make the process easier to build the types of homes that the region needs in the places we need them. This involves eliminating unnecessary regulatory barriers, streamlining the local and state review processes, and building grassroots support for proactively addressing our housing needs.
To create the types of homes that are necessary to address the region’s identified needs. This means building homes for the incomes we have and for our population, prioritizing the creation of so-called “Missing Middle” and supportive housing types. This also involves building the capacity of local developers, building trades, and supportive housing providers.
To build homes that improve the region’s economic health and are consistent with smart growth principles. This includes prioritizing housing developments that further village revitalization efforts, are served by water and sewer infrastructure, encourage walking, bicycling and public transit, and contribute to a stronger, more resilient community and stable tax base.