New Hampshire is graying. What is going on and is there anything we can do about it? As a town planner I would have to turn in my tracing paper and colored markers if I didn’t believe that the built environment had an effect on who lives where and why. We know that, in general, people are buying houses later in life than they once did. That’s a known fact, and there are many reasons why it is true. If they’re not buying houses, and they’re not all living in buses, where are younger people living? They’re living in the same kinds of housing they have always lived in: rental housing.
I’m currently working on a complete zoning rewrite for a very nice small town in New Hampshire. As part of that I have spent hours talking to residents about the zoning and what it means for their neighborhoods. I had a revelatory conversation just recently about the new zoning as it relates to apartment buildings. In the proposed code multi-family housing is allowed in every district, which people sometimes find really concerning. In this conversation I was having I pointed out that the largest multi-family building that could be built on this street was not much bigger than an existing 5-unit apartment building on that very street.
“That’s what I’m terrified of,” the resident exclaimed. “What if we had three buildings like that? It would ruin our street.”
It would ruin our street. Think about that for a minute. This person, and she is not alone, is convinced that having a few small apartment buildings on her street would be a terrible thing.
This conversation brought me up short. What makes that apartment building terrifying? It’s a nice building, well-kept, not out of scale, has never shown up on the police blotter that I know of, and, based on local rents, I would guess the tenants pay almost as much for rent as they would for a mortgage.
What was terrifying was that they were renters. Not homeowners. Renters. Somehow we have demonized renters. Renters are somehow not like us. We have been taught that renters and the rental units they in which they live are in and of themselves bad for our neighborhoods.
I was so struck by this that I created a little FaceBook poll and asked how many people had ever been renters in their adult lives. After two days I had 213 responses; 211 responders had rented at some point in their lives. Did we all miraculously become solid citizens the moment we bought our first house? I was a renter, my children are renters (except for the one who lives in a bus), your children are probably renters, and I bet everyone reading this was a renter, too, once upon a time.
If we expect young people to live in our towns, have children here, work in our factories, stores, offices, and health care facilities, we need to have rental housing. As a planner, I’m not a fan of enormous apartment complexes but what I am a fan of is what is known as missing middle housing: Duplexes, grannie flats, triple-deckers, four-plexes, dignified six-unit apartment buildings. What all those building types have in common is that they are the size of a large single-family house, which means that they blend easily into neighborhoods.
A few more buildings like that could make a difference for all of us: taxpayers, business owners, employers, our children and our children’s children. Remember: you were a renter yourself, once.