by Ethan DeWitt, New Hampshire Bulletin
January 23, 2023
New Hampshire cities and towns would be allowed to set their own rent controls on large developments – including limitations on how quickly rents could rise – under a bill proposed in the House this year.
House Bill 95 would allow municipalities to cap the amount that certain landlords can increase rents and allow the municipalities to choose the limit they wanted.
The bill would also allow cities and towns to require a certain amount of time to pass before landlords could increase a tenant’s rent. Currently, state law requires at least 30 days notice; the proposed bill would allow cities to increase that.
Sponsored by Rep. Ellen Read, a Newmarket Democrat, the bill would allow towns to introduce such controls only on what are known as “restricted” properties. They could not pass controls on “non-restricted properties,” defined in state law as single-family homes whose owner does not own more than three homes; rental properties in buildings with fewer than five units; or single-family homes acquired by banks through foreclosure.
Speaking at a hearing Wednesday, Read said the bill was meant to address the “major, major housing crisis” facing the state.
“It is truly an emergency. People are getting pushed out of their homes, but not just their homes. They’re getting pushed out of entire towns – entire regions. And once you’re pushed out of a region, you are pushed out of your job, for most people.”
Read cited a case in her town of Newmarket when a developer bought a multi-family housing property in 2022 and then raised rents on its tenants. The move prompted tenants in eight of the 14 total units to move elsewhere, citing the rental increase, New Hampshire Public Radio reported.
“To specifically go into the business of displacing people out of their homes for profit, I find to be predatory,” she said.
The bill is intended to allow towns to set in place rent stabilization measures, Read said. She argued that towns are more nimble than the Legislature in creating policy and could reverse or ease any rent controls created should the bill pass. And she predicted that few towns would seek aggressive rent controls anyway, given that that could restrict property sales and valuations and reduce tax revenue.
“Who are we in Concord to say Newmarket doesn’t know what’s in Newmarket’s best interest, even though Newmarket would have the ability to quickly repeal that?” she asked.
Some lawmakers appeared skeptical.
Rep. Josh Yokela, a Fremont Republican, raised concerns that the legislation would enable towns to pass rent controls through bylaws – which don’t need community approval – rather than through warrant articles or ballot initiatives, which do. Read said the nature of the housing crisis caused her to prefer an approach that allowed towns to move quickly.
“They’re not at all predisposed to doing this. In fact, I imagine it’s going to take quite the crisis in any given town before a town council or a select board is going to do something like this.”
The New Hampshire Association of Realtors is opposed to the bill. “Realtors certainly recognize the impetus behind this legislation,” said Joanie McIntire, president of the New Hampshire Association of Realtors, pointing to low vacancy rates and high rents that she said were pricing many low and middle-income tenants out.
“However, we think this bill could make matters worse by constraining the housing supply even further,” she added. If passed, the bill would lead to a “patchwork of ever-changing local ordinances,” which would discourage new construction and increase rents for tenants in towns that didn’t have rent stabilization, McIntire argued.
McIntire pointed to other tools she said communities should use to encourage affordable rental housing, such as providing property-tax breaks for new developments that meet affordable housing standards. The best way to address affordable housing and rental crisis is to encourage a higher density of apartments, McIntire said.
But others are supportive. Kerstin Cornell, a staff attorney at New Hampshire Legal Assistance, said she has worked with low-income tenants facing eviction, and has seen cases where rents were doubled by landlords. Some of those tenants are leaving the state, Cornell said.
“This is resulting in not only homelessness, and not only people having nowhere to go; it’s also resulting in deaths,” she said.
Cornell argued the bill would help communities balance their financial needs with the state’s welfare statute, which requires cities and towns to address people in need in their towns.
Jane Haigh, a member of the Manchester Housing Alliance, an activist group, argued that increasing rental units alone would not solve the immediate problem.
“The idea that if all these units come online rents will suddenly become more affordable is really magical thinking,” she said. “Frankly, the affordable units don’t pencil out, and I think we’re going to have to come up with systems to really subsidize developers to build more.”
“In the meantime,” Haigh added, “people are being pushed out of their apartments and are living in cars, if they have a car, or on couches if they have a friend.”
The bill will receive a vote in the committee at a later date, with a vote on the House floor to follow.
This story was written by Ethan DeWitt, a reporter at the New Hampshire Bulletin, where this story first appeared.
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