Zoning Board of New Hampshire Demands Disassembly of Long-Term Tenants’ Residences

Heads of state across the globe are undoubtedly paying close attention to the Iowa Caucus, but readers of Rent Free are decidedly more interested in other, more pressing news stories from the housing sector. Those stories include two significant housing cases currently before the United States Supreme Court which have the potential to dramatically impact what types of fees municipalities are able to impose on new housing and when they’re allowed to penalize the homeless for sleeping on public property. In addition, recent weeks have seen pro-supply housing advocates forgoing sweeping, all-encompassing legislative packages in favor of more targeted, smaller-scale reforms. This shift in strategy begs the question: Does it signal that those in favor of increasing urban density have tempered their ambitions of late?

Moreover, a new study has yielded the startling conclusion that legalizing more housing doesn’t necessarily result in the cost of housing increases. First, though, a startling report out of Claremont, New Hampshire is causing a stir and serving as a stark and timely example of how zoning regulations can result in disastrous housing outcomes. It seems that a real estate investor, Zander Kempf, is being compelled by the town’s Zoning Board of Adjustment to dismantle a living unit and evict two long-term tenants. Claremont city officials claim that the two units occupied by the tenants were combined illegally and in violation of zoning code, necessitating recombining the two into a single apartment. Despite Kempf’s efforts to obtain a variance so that the units would be made legal and the tenants allowed to remain, the zoning board rejected this proposal. The result? Two individuals, both of whom had resided in the apartments for over a decade, must now scramble to secure alternative housing.

The property in question, a sprawling 15,000-square foot piece of real estate in Claremont, boasts three buildings that are nearly 100 years old with a total of 13 units between them. Although the city has accepted 12 of these units as legal but non-conforming, the 13th unit seems to materialize and vanish from official records. Furthermore, the discovery that a building was being used as a fourth unit violated state law, as there were no building permits issued for the additional unit.

Kempf and the tenants have found themselves at the epicenter of a distressing situation that illustrates the detrimental impact of zoning laws on affordable housing. The Supreme Court is slated to consider two significant cases that could alter the course of housing and homelessness policy in America. In the case of Sheetz v. El Dorado County, petitioner George Sheetz is challenging the constitutionality of a $23,000 traffic impact fee demanded by El Dorado County to permit placement of a manufactured home on a single-family-zoned lot.

The court is also set to take up the case of City of Grants Pass v. Johnson, which pertains to local governments’ authorization to fine and imprison the homeless for sleeping in public spaces. This case has its origins in a watershed 2018 ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in a case known as Martin v. Boise, which deemed that cities’ enforcement of camping bans against the homeless without offering alternative shelters breaches the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment. The outcomes of these cases and the impact they may have on housing and homelessness in America are sure to have an enormous influence on the future of urban living.