CONCORD — Gov. Chris Sununu’s new state Council on Housing Stability, which met for the first time last Friday, has until a week from Monday to come up with recommendations for the Legislature to act on in the 2021 session.
Business and Economic Affairs Commissioner Taylor Caswell, who is leading the effort along with the Department of Health and Human Services and Community Development Finance Authority, said reducing homelessness and creating more affordable housing are critical to the state’s economic recovery from COVID-19.
“As many of us in the housing world know, we have all been involved with these type of groups maybe more than once. These are very complex issues,” Caswell said during the council’s first virtual meeting.
“Here is our opportunity, I think, to start to bring a lot of this together and then move forward.”
A state report on homelessness due out later this month will confirm 4,230 sought shelter or transitional housing during the year and 19% of those who stayed in shelters during 2019 were children.
The state’s 1.8% vacancy rate for rental housing is chronically low, compared to 5% in New England and more than 6% nationally.
This historically small inventory of available apartments led to average rents going up 20% over the past five years, which has only made it harder for low-income individuals and families to afford shelter, officials said.
“We simply are not meeting the demand for affordable housing,” said Dean Christon, executive director and CEO of the New Hampshire Housing Finance Authority.
When a group of mayors last month wrote a letter calling for more action, Sununu responded that the state had earmarked a record amount of federal and state grants to the problem. He then created this council, acknowledging the state needs to do more.
The 42 members include the heads of eight state agencies, National Guard Adjutant Gen. David Mikolaities, the mayors of Concord, Keene and Rochester, the heads of many social service agencies, and Mariah McKenney and Kadya Harris, a parent and young adult who have had real-life experience with being homeless.
After issuing its first action plan by Dec. 14, the council will be required to file follow-up reports each year by Nov. 1.
The first plan is likely to endorse to work of Sununu’s 2019 affordable housing task force, which produced two bills that lawmakers reviewed in the last session.
Both measures (HB 1629 and HB 1632) received initial support before House committees but died when Democratic legislative leaders, in the face of the pandemic, left them out of the few dozen omnibus bills they decided to move on last June.
Proposals include creating timelines for local zoning boards to make decisions on all housing projects and deadlines for courts to act on appeals, requiring that impact fees be public and transparent and permitting workforce housing projects to qualify for local community development tax breaks.
Those changes are included in bills already introduced for 2021.
The council also is likely to endorse a federal waiver request the Sununu administration has been working on to allow the state to grant Medicaid benefits for homeless who receive transitional housing.