Not What, but Who, is Workforce Housing?

Last month, I wrote about home, so I thought this month I’d write about housing. More specifically, workforce housing – the type of housing New Hampshire badly needs. As the Executive Director of the Workforce Housing Coalition of the Greater Seacoast, I live and breathe this topic, so I knew I’d eventually write about it here.

Let’s quickly get the technical stuff out of the way first. What is workforce housing? Per NH R.S.A. 674:58, workforce housing is affordable (meaning housing costs are no more than 30 percent of income) to renters making up to 60 percent of the area median income and homeowners making up to 100 percent of the area median income. In my area (the Portsmouth-Rochester HUD Metro Fair Market Area), this translates to renters making up to $53,570 and homeowners making up to $99,200 (see more info about HUD Fair Market Rents in NH here).

Melissa is a Portsmouth resident whose high rental costs are making it difficult to save for larger purchases, like a home. Photo by Raya Al-Hashmi for Portsmouth City Councilor, Rebecca Perkins Kwoka’s, Seacoast Sunday series, “Opening the Door: Faces of Portsmouth Housing“. 

With that out of the way, let’s talk about who workforce housing serves because, as I said last month, what’s housing without the people who call it home? We often cite police officers, firefighters, teachers, and nurses – and it’s true, these folks are a critical part of our state’s workforce, but workforce housing also serves the kitchen staff at your favorite restaurant, the baristas who make your morning latte, shop owners, hotel employees, skilled laborers, occupational therapists like Melissa (pictured above), non-profit directors (like me), folks who work in the charitable gaming industry, and many others.

While workforce housing isn’t just for young professionals – a healthy supply of a range of housing types allow older folks and empty-nesters to downsize out of large homes into smaller housing units, while staying in their hometown – housing affordability is critical to attracting and retaining young professionals and recent college graduates. Our state’s inadequate supply of workforce housing has been cited again and again as a reason why young people are leaving the state.

Sean is concerned about the significant barriers that prevent working class citizens from moving to Portsmouth. Photo by Raya Al-Hashmi for Portsmouth City Councilor, Rebecca Perkins Kwoka’s, Seacoast Sunday series, “Opening the Door: Faces of Portsmouth Housing”

Last December, Stay Work Play New Hampshire, in partnership with Eversource Energy, commissioned RKM Research to conduct a survey of NH residents between the ages of 20 and 40. As you probably know, Stay Work Play aims to to encourage students and young adults to stay in, come to, or “boomerang” back to New Hampshire.

The survey was intended to help the organization understand why residents choose to live in New Hampshire and why they would consider leaving, which will allow Stay Work Play to identify policy priorities and opportunities for collaboration. According to Stay Work Play Executive Director, Will Stewart, the organization wants to advocate on behalf of young people in the Granite State – something those of us already working on this type of advocacy are excited to hear. The study demonstrated that – yes, you guessed it – housing is a key reason why young people are opting to leave NH (read more about the survey here).

So, why is this important?

Developer and President of Anagnost Investment, Dick Anagnost, said it best last Monday at a forum about affordable housing: “housing brings people, people bring the workforce, the workforce brings business, and business brings economic development and prosperity.” The connection between housing and workforce growth and economic development is clear. Without housing, where would our workforce live? As NH’s aging workforce retires and young professionals leave the state, employees will be increasingly more difficult to find.

The economic impact isn’t the only reason to care about housing affordability. Housing is central to the social and cultural fabric of our communities. The development of a diverse housing market leads to a diverse community. When people of all ages, incomes, and walks of life are able to live in close proximity and mingle with one another, everyone benefits.

Rochelle believes natives should be able to live in their hometowns. Photo by Raya Al-Hashmi for Portsmouth City Councilor, Rebecca Perkins Kwoka’s Seacoast Sunday series, “Opening the Door: Faces of Portsmouth Housing”

A diverse housing stock also allows young people, like me, to establish roots. You may have heard the term “life cycle housing” used to illustrate this idea: consider the housing types an average person chooses throughout their lives. A recent college graduate probably lives in an apartment. Perhaps they find a partner and move into a larger place, maybe a condo. Once they’ve establish their careers and consider starting a family, they start shopping for a starter home. As their family grows, so do their housing needs. When their children are grown and their nest empties, they may want to downsize into a smaller place. Perhaps one of their adult children builds an accessory dwelling unit so they can age in place.

Now, consider the possibility that all of the above housing types were available in a single town or city. This family has now lived in this community for decades – they’re invested. Folks who are invested in their communities participate. These are the folks who run for office, join town committees, and show up for public hearings. Developing a range of housing types, which are affordable to all income levels, creates a community of caring.

The photos in this post were captured by Raya Al-Hashmi (Raya on Assignment) for Portsmouth City Councilor, Rebecca Perkins Kwoka’s, series “Opening the Door: Faces of Portsmouth Housing”, which ran in Seacoast Sunday last summer. Read the entire series, including Melissa’s, Sean’s, and Rochelle’s stories to find out more about not what, but who, workforce housing is.

Find out more about workforce housing on the seacoast at www.seacoastwhc.org or by visiting the NH Housing Finance Authority’s page on workforce housing, here

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