Three myths regarding young workers and older adults
Peter Francese and Lorraine Stewart Merrill
(What follows is the last of a two-part series of excerpts from the book "Communities & Consequences: The Unbalancing of New Hampshire's Human Ecology, & What We Can Do About It". Co-authors are Peter Francese and Lorraine Stuart Merrill. Francese of Exeter is a demographer and founder of American Demographics Magazine, which is now part of Advertising Age. He is an analyst for Oglivy & Mather. Merrill of Stratham is a writer who specializes in agriculture, business, community planning and the environment. She also is state Commissioner of Agriculture, Markets and Food. The book is published by Peter E. Randall Publisher, LLC, of Portsmouth.)
Three persistent myths are factors in effectively discouraging young people from residing in New Hampshire and encouraging retirees and older adults without children to stay here.
Myth one is that for every reasonably affordable unit of workforce housing two children will attend local schools. Therefore, 100 such units will instantly "flood" the schools with 200 children and drive up property taxes intolerably.
A study commissioned in 2005 by the New Hampshire Housing Finance Authority (Housing & School Enrollment in N.H.: An Expanded View) has shown that each new house results in an average of just one-half child of school age.
What is Workforce Housing
Workforce housing comprises single-family homes, town houses, condominiums, starter homes, and apartments that are affordable to area workers. One definition of workforce housing is housing that is affordable to households with an income up to 120% of the area's median household income. These income brackets include many people: nurses, teachers, firefighters, police officers, emergency medical service providers, home health care aides, child care providers, farmers and farm workers, carpenters, plumbers, electricians, librarians, landscape professionals and workers, bakers, cooks, chefs, retail workers, government and nonprofit employees, dental hygienists, and technicians of all sorts, for example-who provide the labor and services considered the backbone of any successful community.
Furthermore, no housing development is built all at once. A 100-unit housing development, for example, would take at least four years to complete, sell, and fill with residents.That means an average of 20 to 25 occupied units per year.
Thus the reality is that instead of the feared 200 children showing up for school in the fall after the project is approved, 12 or 13 students might be enrolled per year. That's about one child per grade in a K-12 school system, hardly a flood. And during the four-to-five-year build-out, at least that number of children will graduate or leave the district. Because enrollment is declining in nearly all school districts,the addition of two or three children per grade will have no impact on property taxes.
Myth number two
is that age-restricted housing is a net gain for a town.The idea is that people over age 55 won't put any children in the schools and will make few other demands on the town, so their property taxes are almost all net gain to the town.This thinking also suggests that the net gain will be so large that it will reduce property taxes on present homeowners.
The reality is that older households without children spend far less on food, clothing, and home furnishings at local retail establishments than do younger families with children. Over time, that lower spending will diminish the value of commercial property, thus lowering the number of such properties and reducing their assessed values — an important component of a town's tax base.
Age-restricted housing also has the effect of unbalancing the normal age distribution of voters, virtually ensuring that warrant articles giving ever larger property tax abatements to senior citizens will be approved, and making it ever more difficult to pass school budgets or muster the two-thirds majority needed to pass school bond issues. The bottom line is that the anticipated property tax "windfall" to towns from permitting large, age-restricted housing developments almost never materializes, and is minimal and short-lived if it does.
Myth number three
is that what we do in our small town has no effect on the state's economy. In reality, when even small towns prevent the creation of workforce housing or create incentives for retirees, they are contributing to the unbalancing of the human ecology. The impacts of this imbalance affect the economic health not only of the immediate region, but also of the state as a whole.
Zoning Out Children
Concentration of power in small, local jurisdictions of both municipal and school government is affecting the generational tilt, lack of affordable housing, and sprawl development patterns in several interrelated ways. Costs of schools and other municipal services are higher in many places than they might be with more regional cooperation. Voters have reacted to rapidly rising property taxes by trying to zone children out of any new development. They have enacted development regulations that drive up housing costs, prevent coordination of sewage-treatment systems and transportation-oriented planning, and use up more land for each new home built-all without regard for the social, economic, and environmental impacts on the larger region or state.
Town and city governments in New Hampshire trace their broad powers and authority to the political organization established in 17th-century colonial New England. New England states lack strong county administrative systems as well as the large special districts with authority over narrow public services that typify other regions.
Small School Districts, Big Costs
Most significantly for property taxes, New England distributes school costs and decision making over smaller school districts compared to other regions, which more often administer and fund education at the county level. New England states are also far more dependent on property taxes to fund local government and services.
Each of New Hampshire's 234 towns and cities must raise the bulk of what it spends to educate children and youth by taxing land and buildings within the borders of the town. Public education in New Hampshire is governed by local or cooperative school districts, based on the same political boundaries as towns and cities.
Voters in two or more towns may elect to form a cooperative district to provide for education of some or all of the towns' students. When towns form cooperative agreements, they negotiate how costs will be apportioned among taxpayers of the member towns.
State law requires all school districts to form school administrative units (SAUs) to hire a superintendent of schools and staff to provide supervisory administration. The size of the approximately 90 SAUs varies greatly, as do their amount and valuation of taxable property.
At some point, parts or all of New Hampshire will reach a tipping point. There will he no workforce growth, healthcare costs for the rapidly growing older population will balloon, more businesses unable to find employees will simply go elsewhere, and economic growth as we know it will cease.
This is a bleak but entirely avoidable future. All that is required is for members and especially leaders of our towns to speak up about the need for a balanced community where people of modest means can live and work, and where young families are welcome.They need to speak out about the myth that allowing workforce housing will increase property taxes. And they need to speak out about the longterm damage inflicted by the injustice of discriminating against young people when housing is age-restricted. We need to take the thumbs off the scale, and stop asking struggling young families to pick up the tab for senior tax discounts.
This is not to suggest or advocate no limits on residential development, or that taxpayers should just accept continued rapid increases in property taxes. But we must stop blaming children, and start looking for the real reasons why we still have sprawl development and rising property taxes, despite modest or no material growth in either children or residents.
We end this book the way we began: with the importance of balance in our natural and human ecology. The losses we are experiencing in that balance in our state means losing multiple and complex interrelationships in our communities, depleting our reservoir of social capital, with profoundly negative consequences. If people act soon, communities across New Hampshire have an opportunity to replenish their social capital and build a brighter, stronger future for all of us.
END OF TWO-PART SERIES
(EDITOR'S NOTE: For the first time this decade more residents are moving out of New Hampshire than in, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates for the year ending July 1, 2007, as reported by Associated Press this week. The overall population of 1.3 million will show an increase of 4000, based on more births than deaths and 2000 foreign immigrants entering the state.)
Copyright © Rye Reflections 2008. All rights reserved.