Portsmouth, N.H., officials have been talking for years about the need for more housing in the city.
The good news is that developers have heeded their call, and over the past few years hundreds of new housing units have been created throughout the city, including downtown, the surging West End and off Lafayette Road.
Several hundred more are being proposed, including at the West End Yards, which includes a proposal to build 250 apartments and 27 townhouses, while giving the city more than two acres of land to build a long sought-after connector road from Borthwick Avenue to Cate and Bartlett streets.
The bad news is that most of the housing is high-end apartments with precious little housing being built or planned that working-class or downtown employees can afford.
Former longtime Assistant Mayor Jim Splaine laments the fact most of the housing being built or planned is “very expensive.”
“What we need are more affordable housing options … I’ve advocated for finding ways to allow more housing like what I live in, manufactured housing,” Splaine said Friday. “I think we could find ways to be able to allow that in different parts of the city. It’s very affordable living.”
Splaine estimated someone could own a 700-square-foot manufactured home like his for about $50,000.
He also pointed to the new apartment housing developments in the West End being created by developer Eric Chinburg, which he believes will offer lower rents than the high-end apartments and condos downtown.
“I’m very excited about the new housing in the West End of the city,” Splaine said.
There are also new condos being built at the former St. James Church on Lafayette Road and the Veridian Residences, an apartment development in the Portsmouth Green, formerly called Southgate Plaza, farther south on Lafayette Road.
Splaine believes as Portsmouth continues to develop three downtowns — the downtown core, the West End and Lafayette Road — a greater variety of housing will be offered.
“I consider a downtown to be where you can have a lot of services within a walking distance and a lot of jobs,” Splaine said.
He pointed to the development at Portsmouth Green as a way to build community and housing options throughout Portsmouth.
“Just look at the Lafayette Road area,” Splaine said. “You’ve got a movie theater, theme park (Water Country), fast-food restaurants and traditional restaurants. I think Portsmouth is expanding in a good way, we just need more affordable housing and not workforce, real affordable, so people working service jobs can afford it.”
Jay Bisognano is one of the two owners of the 12.2-acre former Frank Jones Conference Center property, which is located off the Route 1 Bypass. His company also built the Veridian Residences.
He and his development team appeared before Portsmouth’s Planning Board Thursday night, where they heard favorable reviews of their West End Yards project.
Developers want to build 250 apartments there, and have pledged to make 27 of them workforce housing in exchange for receiving a conditional-use permit (CUP) for “building length, units per acre and units per building,” according to the development team’s attorney John Bosen.
The plan also calls for creating a multi-use path, a public dog park and open and green space throughout the project.
Bisognano stressed he believes “strongly in the creation of workforce housing.” But there’s a limited amount of below-market rate housing they can do and still make the development financially viable.
Bisognano said he is “looking at other opportunities within the city and am hopeful workforce housing can be a component of those.”
But he acknowledged providing more than 10 percent workforce housing at the West End Yards is something “that our team simply cannot do.”
A majority of the recent housing projects that have been built or are being planned offer rentals rather than single-family homes, condos or townhouses.
City Manager John Bohenko, who also serves on the Planning Board, does not have a problem with that.
“With single-family homes, there isn’t a lot of land left to do that in Portsmouth. We have about 5,000 rental units in the city and 5,000 owner-occupied,” Bohenko said. “It’s split kind of right down the middle. I don’t know if it’s swaying one way or the other, but it seems pretty even right now.”
He also believes the market is driving what type of housing is being built and pointed to West End Yards.
The developers presented a plan last year that called for 325 apartments and 23 townhomes.
But they came back Thursday with a less dense plan, which Bohenko said “frankly is a much better plan.”
“You have a mix of apartments and townhomes,” he said. “You heard the developer (Thursday) night, they have a pro forma they’re going to go through to see what’s financially viable. That’s why they changed their plan.”
The addition of apartments as housing options may best serve the city’s largest single age group, those 18 to 34. According to the American Community Survey data for 2013-17, cited in the city’s most recent annual report, that group represents 27% of the city’s population.
Those age 35 to 44 (13%), 45 to 54 (14%) and 55 to 64 (12%) combine for a total of 39%. While those under age 5 (4%) and age 5 to 17 (12%) combine for 16% of the population. The remaining 18% are those age 65 and older.
Despite the hundreds of units built over the last few years and hundreds more in the planning review process, Bohenko does not believe the housing market in Portsmouth will get saturated.
“When you look at the tradeport (Pease International Tradeport), there’s 10,000 jobs out there, then you look at the shipyard and there’s 5,000 jobs there,” Bohenko said. “That’s $1.2 billion in payroll. I don’t see us getting saturated.”
If that ever happened, Bohenko said, “rents might start going down.”
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Portsmouth had a population of 21,221 in 2010, and the N.H. Office of Energy and Planning estimated the city’s population had reached 21,898 by 2017.
Craig Welch is the executive director of the Portsmouth Housing Authority, which is seeking to build 64 workforce and below-market rate apartments on Court Street. The project has been approved, but is now tied up in court.
He acknowledged most of the housing that’s been developed in Portsmouth is high end, but said all additional housing will ultimately help the market.
“I think it’s awesome,” he said about all the new housing being built in Portsmouth. “I think that’s what we keep saying, if we want to find places where people can afford to live you’ve got to increase the supply.”
In a city of 10,000 households there’s been about 1,091 new housing units built or planned in the last few years, representing more than 10 percent of the city’s housing stock.
“I think the city is doing a great job,” Welch said. “We have really moved the needle.”
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