CLAREMONT — The Claremont Planning Board heard a report about housing in the city from Olivia Uyizeye of the Upper Valley Lake Sunapee Regional Planning Commission (UVLSRPC) that summarized the results of a survey of employees of 18 different employers in Claremont. Uyizeye told the board that some employers see the current housing in Claremont as a barrier to their own improvement. Norman Blouin also asked the planning board when and how they are going to address the subject of tiny houses, which have started to appear, illegally, in Claremont.
Uyizeye received about 1,000 responses to a housing survey of employers and employees, which follows a survey of residents that was presented to the board in January. Most of the respondents work in retail, manufacturing, or government. She found that the employees surveyed were generally older and that employers are concerned, because they would like to attract a continuing workforce. There was a “general openness” to employer-assisted housing, but no real enthusiasm for it; people wanted to know more about it.
The results of the survey produced seven goals that UVLSRPC is forwarding to the city. (1) Provide more adequate housing for employees; (2) improve housing quality citywide and identify housing in bad condition before complaints arise; (3) increase housing use of city water and sewer; (4) move effectively to incorporate environmental regulations into the city ordinance; (5) increase senior and affordable housing; (6) increase accessible housing; and (7) increase multi-use neighborhoods.
Uyizeye also presented three strategies to achieve those goals. (1) Pursue solutions that include employers; (2) develop stepwise implementation programs for housing improvement to improve safety and accessibility while maintaining affordability; and (3) engage residents about lesser known higher-density housing-- for example, co-housing.
Uyizeye quoted Charles Marohn, the founder and president of Strong Towns, a nonprofit that provides advice about community development. He looks at housing, she said, as a “complex adaptive system.” Marohn believes that no neighborhood should experience rapid, radical change, but none can be exempt from change either.
Going forward, Uziyeye and her colleagues are doing a municipal policy audit. They have categorized the various regulatory aspects of housing to jibe with the Housing chapter of the city’s master plan: zoning, site plan review, subdivisions, and building code. She said that her group will outline which aspect of housing each category addresses, make comments on what each category contributes, and highlight goals for feasible changes.
Vice-chair of the board David Putnam was surprised by a graph in her report that showed only 30 percent of those surveyed said “No” when asked if there is adequate housing in Claremont. He said he recently had a conversation with the owner of 30 rental units, 13 of which are houses with others in multi-family structures.
“He told me he could rent them all twice now,” Putnam said, “with the demand he is feeling. He never has a vacancy. I’ve heard that from more than one person. Finding good quality rental properties is difficult here.”
Putnam said that a lot of rental properties are “not desirable” because they are in such poor condition. “We need to upgrade the quality of our housing,” he said, “and that falls to the landlords. They have to take the initiative to clean up their properties to make them desirable.”
Putnam feels that rundown properties attract tenants who don’t take care of them and tend not to even keep up with the rent. “That’s not a good way to characterize ourselves,” he said, “because it’s part of our image. How do we focus on fixing that? This has to come about through policy, codes, and code enforcement. It should be challenging and difficult for landlords to get away with not taking care of their property.”
He recommended that the city hire a full-time code enforcement officer to do the job. He formerly served on the city school board and said that board’s decision to hire a full-time truant officer was effective. The rate of truancy was much higher in Claremont than surrounding communities, until the district hired someone to change it.
Mayor Charlene Lovett, an ex-officio member of the planning board, asked Uyizeye for a timeline. The planner said that she expected the audit to be finished at the end of July and that she would return to the next planning board meeting to present the recommendations for policy changes. Lovett estimated that with hearings conducted by city council implementation of the changes would occur in late October or November.
Putnam, who has been civically involved for over 30 years, said that he has been seeing the same problems addressed repeatedly, which indicated to him that the solutions were not sustainable and therefore the city was not making any progress and was, in fact, falling behind.
“I learned from a consultant over in Portland [Maine] that when you have a new policy you should have six or eight questions that test whether it will work or not,” Putnam said. “All have to be answered in a unanimous ‘Yes,’ and if there is one ‘No,’ then the chances of it not working are pretty high.” He said he had tried the method himself and found it to work.
“One thing that keeps people from fixing apartment buildings,” chair of the board Richard Wahrlich said to Uyizeye, “is that it opens you up to the building inspector. Then it is a whole bunch of cost to update everything. Are going to look into that?”
Uyizeye returned to the subject of stepwise improvement recommended by Strong Towns. They had presented the idea in the context of redeveloping an area for several entrepreneurs. At their recommendation the city set up a schedule of renovations that allowed the businesses to make repairs to their buildings in stages. The projects were timed to correspond with the businesses' ability to generate the revenue to pay for them. The rationale was that it was better to have someone in the buildings and improving them over time than to have them sit vacant.
Lovett asked the UVLSRPC planner to provide a definition of “co-housing.” Uyizeye asked the board to think of a condominium complex as an analog; everyone has an individual home, but there are shared spaces and amenities. Co-housing, she said, has even more shared space and amenities than that.
Wahrlich said that his daughter had lived in housing like that while she was staying in Denmark. City Planner Scott Osgood noted that co-housing was very common in northern Europe. Putnam offered cluster housing as another analog, where housing units are closely spaced on a large parcel and the surrounding land is left to be used by all the residents. Such a scheme is more cost effective because it concentrates utility infrastructure in one place.
Here come the tiny houses
Before getting to his main interest, Norman Blouin of Ward 3 brought to the attention of the board that most of the construction on the New Hampshire/Massachusetts border consists of apartments. He cited building costs of $75 to $100 per square foot and said that anything that cost more than $200,000 per unit would not sell in the Claremont area. He described incomes in the region as “low to medium.”
Blouin’s main concern, however, was the unregulated incursion of tiny houses in Claremont. “It needs to be curtailed to some place,” he said. “It can’t be let loose in the whole town.” He described the negative impact on neighborhood appraisals if a tiny house is parked on a parcel between two $300,000 houses. Tiny houses, Blouin said, are worth only $50,000 to $60,000. “If you stick them all over town,” he said, “no one will want to come here.”
Wahrlich said he regarded tiny houses as equivalent to a camper. Putnam said he was under the impression that if it didn’t have axels and wheels, the state designated it as a tiny house not a camper. Wahrlich replied that if you took the wheels off, a building inspector would not pass it as a home because it doesn’t meet the international building code. Putnam felt that the board needed to find out what Claremont residents were willing to accept. He admitted that he did not care for tiny houses because of their drag on appraisals and therefore the size of the tax base.
Osgood noted that at present tiny houses may only be placed in trailer parks and that Claremont does not allow new additions to its existing trailer parks, so tiny houses are presently illegal in the city. Brouin said that there was one up the street from him and Osgood promised to pay a visit to the owner.
Lovett recommended that a discussion of the pros and cons of tiny houses be added to the agenda of a future meeting. While other voices in the room claimed their only pro was to be cheaper, she preferred to keep an open mind.
Hearing on American Recycling will be July 22
American Recycling, the Massachusetts company that has proposed a recycling transfer station near the airport, is consulting with an environmental engineer. The engineer will help the company answer some of the questions that have come up about its proposed operation, which separates recyclable materials from construction and demolition debris.
There will be a public hearing 7 p.m. July 22 at the Claremont Savings Bank Community Center on the site permit.
Editor's note: This story has been corrected to reflect that the public hearing has NOT been moved to August 12.