Concord Monitor – House kills ‘HOMEnibus bill’, votes against attempt to boost housing

The New Hampshire House voted 188-173 last week to approve a bipartisan bill aimed at making it easier to build homes in the state, nullifying this year’s legislation.

Supporters of Senate Bill 538, known as the “HOMEnibus,” argued it would help remove barriers to housing construction and give cities and towns new tools to increase housing.

“The Municipal and County Government Commission has heard extensive testimony that New Hampshire is experiencing a serious housing crisis,” Rep. David Preece, a Manchester Democrat, wrote in a report to the House ahead of the vote. “It impacts businesses, the economy and our labor market because of the lack of housing and affordability. This bill allows local governments to use another tool to address the housing shortage in their communities.”

The latest version of the bill allowed cities and towns to create “office conversion zones,” within which developers could receive property tax breaks to convert commercial real estate buildings into residential properties. It also allowed cities and towns to accelerate zoning code changes: the bill allowed residents to give their local boards or boards of selectmen the authority to adopt new zoning codes; Currently, zoning codes can only be changed once a year at the town meeting. That empowerment of local officials would have to be approved by the city through a warrant.

And the bill would require city planning boards to consider alternative parking options when deciding whether to approve or deny a new housing development. That would allow developers to propose housing projects that do not include new parking for residents but use existing public or private lots; the bill would require the planning board to seriously consider these proposals.

The bill was passed unanimously by the Senate. But a group of 170 Republicans and 18 Democrats voted in the House of Representatives on Thursday to kill the bill. 165 Democrats and seven Republicans voted against this motion.

For housing advocates, the bill would have helped interested cities boost housing construction and speed up the process, at a time when many companies are struggling to find workers due to low housing availability.

Home prices and rents are at record highs, and the state’s vacancy rate is less than 1 percent, a number that housing experts say is well below the recommended rate of 5 percent. And homelessness in the state increased 30 percent between 2020 and 2022, according to the state’s annual census and the latest report from the New Hampshire Coalition to End Homelessness.

“A few simple adjustments to our zoning and planning procedures would encourage a modest increase in this much-needed supply,” said Rep. Laurel Stavis, a Democrat from Lebanon.

But opponents disagreed with every part of the bill. Rep. Len Turcotte, a Republican from Barrington and chairman of the city and county government committee, argued that the Legislature should not allow cities to give property tax breaks for housing because doing so would only increase property taxes for other businesses and homeowners in the city can increase. Turcotte argued that the bill could allow city officials to give unfair tax breaks to favored developers.

Turcotte also opposed giving local government officials the authority to make changes to zoning codes without approval from the town meeting. In a report to the full House, Turcotte wrote: “The ability to change the municipality’s zoning plan at very short notice, without time for citizens to consider and vote on the proposed changes, is anathema to good government.”

And he and others opposed the part of the bill that requires local governments to consider alternative parking solutions, noting that it would “essentially require no parking to be part of any development proposal,” which according to it could lead to parking congestion in cities.

Rep. Diane Pauer, a Republican from Brookline, said the office conversion zones could result in businesses being forced to relocate if their landlords decide to convert their office buildings into apartments.

“This bill is extremely unwise because it displaces commercial tenants, leaving them homeless when commercial space is converted to residential use,” she said.

The near party-line vote was a blow to housing advocates’ efforts to form a bipartisan coalition to pass zoning reform.

Republicans who joined Democrats in voting against killing the bill included Reps. Joe Alexander of Goffstown; Keith Ammon, of New Boston; Ross Berry, from Manchester; Jim Kofalt, of Wilton; Tom Mannion, of Pelham; Fred Plett, of Goffstown; and Joe Sweeney of Salem.

But nearly twice as many Democrats broke from their party to kill the bill, including Reps. Peggy Balboni of Rye; Karen Calabro, of Hollis; Mike Edgar, of Hampton; Sallie Fellows, of Holderness; Julie Gilman, from Exeter; Jeffrey Goley, of Manchester; Jaci Grote, from Rogge; Cathryn Harvey, of Chesterfield; Jim Maggiore, of North Hampton; Kat McGhee, of Hollis; Nancy Murphy, of Merrimack; Catherine Rombeau, of Bedford; Rosemarie Rung, of Merrimack; Dianne Schuett, of Pembroke; Bear Muscle, from Nashua; Charlie St. Clair, of Laconia; Mark Vallone, of Epping; and Jonah Wheeler, of Peterborough.

Housing advocates expressed disappointment after the vote.

“It is difficult to fathom that the House of Representatives rejected the HOMEnibus bill in the midst of New Hampshire’s housing crisis,” said Elissa Margolin, executive director of Housing Action NH, an advocacy group. “However, housing advocates must remain energized, expand our coalitions, and continue to educate policymakers.”

The move to scrap the bill was recommended by the city and county government commission, which in recent years has often voted against housing laws seen as taking away local control. But the vote also came as political leaders from both parties have emphasized the need for more housing.

In early 2023, Chairman Sherman Packard formed the House Special Committee on Housing, tasked with examining legislation that could help the state close its housing shortage. That committee has approved a number of bills passed by the full House this year, including House Bill 1291, which would allow homeowners to build two additional homes as of right, in addition to the current one.

HB 1291 is currently in the Senate Commerce Committee; A public hearing is scheduled for Tuesday. But SB 538 was seen by observers as the most comprehensive approach to zoning.

Alexander, the chairman of the House of Representatives Special Committee, expressed frustration from the floor over the lack of support for the bill.

“I am not shocked that the municipal and provincial government committee would recommend scrapping another bill related to housing,” he said. “Mr. Chairman, did you set up a special committee for that very reason? Only time will tell.”