Portsmouth’s Housing Crisis: Dillon’s Law Hampers Efforts to Mandate Affordable Housing in New Developments

Portsmouth, New Hampshire is grappling with a pressing housing crisis driven by various factors, including population growth, limited land availability, and escalating construction costs. However, the city faces a significant roadblock in the form of Dillon’s Law, which restricts its authority to mandate affordable or workforce housing in new developments.

Dillon’s Law, originating from an 1868 Iowa court case, imposes limitations on local governments’ powers, allowing them to take actions only explicitly permitted by state law. In terms of housing policy, this legal restriction hampers Portsmouth’s ability to implement measures that promote housing affordability and diversity. As a result, developers are not obligated to include affordable housing in their projects, exacerbating the shortage of such homes. Unlike neighboring states such as Massachusetts and Maine, which enjoy Home Rule status and greater housing requirement flexibility, New Hampshire operates under the constraints of Dillon’s Law.

The correlation between housing options and supply-demand dynamics is evident in Portsmouth. As the demand for housing outpaces the available supply, housing prices skyrocket, making homeownership unattainable for many, including essential workers like first responders, teachers, and nurses.

Addressing this issue requires a reevaluation of housing policy and a push for reforms that empower local governments. This entails advocating for changes to state laws that hinder the implementation of inclusionary zoning policies, which mandate a certain percentage of affordable units in new developments. By incentivizing diverse housing options, Portsmouth can increase the supply of affordable homes and cultivate inclusive communities.

Furthermore, the lack of affordable housing has far-reaching implications, affecting the economy, social fabric, and future of the city. Businesses struggle to attract employees, families are forced to endure substandard living conditions, and younger generations are priced out of their own communities.

Effectively tackling this housing crisis demands bold action at both the local and state levels. Overcoming the constraints of Dillon’s Law and advocating for reforms can pave the way for effective housing policies in Portsmouth, fostering inclusive and sustainable communities where housing is considered a fundamental right for all. Fortunately, local State Sen. Rebecca Perkins Kwoka and the House delegation support efforts to modernize housing laws in New Hampshire. However, achieving meaningful change in these matters within the state’s legislative bodies poses challenges. Therefore, residents may consider becoming local advocates by reaching out to their state house representatives via email or participating in hearings in Concord.

At the local level, the City Council is proactively making significant changes to the zoning code, aided by a housing navigator staff position funded through a grant at City Hall. The city’s zoning regulations have evolved over the years, sometimes unintentionally, resulting in significant restrictions on housing supply and walkable neighborhoods. If current regulations were enforced, many desirable neighborhoods such as Atlantic Heights, the South End, Middle Street, and Islington Creek would be illegal to build today. Therefore, it is crucial to revise these regulations to encourage smart and sustainable growth.

In the face of the housing crisis in Portsmouth, it is evident that comprehensive and innovative approaches are necessary to create a more affordable and inclusive housing landscape. By addressing the implications of Dillon’s Law and advocating for reforms, the city can take crucial steps toward providing accessible housing options for its residents. The collaborative efforts of local government and engaged residents offer hope for a future where affordability and housing opportunities are available to all.