Harmonizing Demand

Can Cottages Offer Housing Crisis Solution?

Dover Developers Hope to House Young Workers

With a unique take on the “cluster development,” a Dover couple hopes to provide housing for young people in the same situation as many of their employees: forced to live far away from their jobs thanks to a lack of affordable housing. Image courtesy of GSD Studios

As owners of Harmony Homes Assisted Living Center in Durham, architect Margaret Randolph and her husband, developer John Randolph, have found it difficult to attract and retain young workers because of the high cost of housing on the Seacoast. 

“We asked our staff what they needed and over the next year, we gave out 21 percent pay raises and better benefits, but it was still hard to attract people,” said John Randolph. “The real problem was people had to live more than an hour away from the Seacoast because there was no affordable housing available.”   

To solve their problem, the couple came up with a plan to build The Cottages at Black River Road, 44 384-square-foot detached cottage apartments, that would let workers live nearby. Each apartment would include a kitchen/living area, bedroom and bathroom, with a loft for storage. 

If approved, the 7.16-acre site would consist of several clusters of cottages, with each cluster offering a central green space for community use. 

An Old Idea, Updated 

This idea of pocket neighborhoods or clusters is actually really old, pre-World War II, and it has been very successful out West,” Margaret Randolph said. “Each house would have a porch that face these common greens, so we are trying to increase the sense of community.” 

The city of Dover has been receptive so far, and the Randolphs are on track to finish everything needed to get done in time for Planning Board meeting later in November to get final approval.  

“We already have our financing lined up, and depending on weather, we might have some initial site work this fall, but if not, we will be building in April,” John Randolph said. Dover is about a 24-month build. 

He also noted the homes would conform with U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Fair Market Rent rates for Dover, so someone earning between $16 to $20 an hour would pay between $800 and $1,000 in monthly rent.  

Benjamin Frost, managing director for policy and public affairs at the New Hampshire Housing Finance Authoritynoted it’s an idea that follows recent housing trends of trying to find affordable housing for younger workers, which has created a strong market for smaller units in some parts of the state. 

We’re seeing the development of so-called ‘micro-apartments’ in the Seacoast and in the Manchester market as well,” he said, adding similar smaller units have also been proposed in Keene and Concord. “These units have a strong appeal to young people who don’t need or want a lot of space and who may not have a desire to do yard work and would rather spend their time outdoors engaging in active recreation.” 

Depending on the location and configuration, these smaller units also appeal to older people who may want to downsize their housing, especially since they are walkable to services and amenities. 

Local Regulations a Challenge 

The question of feasibility isn’t really about the market – the demand is definitely there, Frost said. The question is whether they’re allowed under local regulations.  

While many communities have a minimum dwelling unit size well above 400 square feet, Frost explained that the state building code actually allows dwelling units to be as small as 70 square feet, not including closets or bathroom. 

“To achieve profitability in a development, if zoning has low density and/or large minimum lot sizes, a developer would be compelled to build larger units to gain a sufficient return on investment,” he said. “There is still demand and desire for large units, and they should continue to be built for as long as people will buy them; but the full scope of housing demand is much more than just big houses.”   

Coincidentally, a condominium subdivision in the same area of Dover was also before the Dover Planning Board alongside The Cottages last month that fits the same number of homes – 40 – on a parcel more than twice as big, showing the difference between the Randolphs’ plan and more traditional projects. 

The state estimated that it was short 20,000 to 30,000 housing units, not even taking into consideration those units’ affordability. 

We also recognize that because of a dearth of smaller units in New Hampshire, many people may be sharing occupancy of larger units – that is, having two or three roommates in a two- or three-bedroom apartment,” Frost said. “But this means that because we don’t have enough smaller units for those who would rent them, families have a harder time finding housing that suits them and is available – they’re being out-bid in the market by the multi-roommate groups.” 

That’s why Frost believes the Randolph’s plan would work throughout the state, in different sizes and configurations.   

Maybe not 40 units in a small town, but perhaps a halfdozen,” he said. “Maybe not 400 square feet, but 700 square feet or a mix of sizes. Housing markets are local, and Realtors and developers have a good sense of what will work and what won’t in any given market. But we know that vacancy rates are critically low all over New Hampshire. The need for more housing is everywhere, in every community.”