Mullins: One Weird Trick to Build More Housing

Students should show up and vote for Article 11 at the Hanover Town Meeting on Tuesday.

by Kyle Mullins | 5/5/22 4:10am

Last June, I had the not-so-delightful experience of being randomly placed on the housing waitlist. Despite the College offering a $5,000 incentive for students to give up a claim to fall housing in June, I and 128 other students remained in limbo in July. It was only in mid-August that I finally learned I would live on campus. This persistent uncertainty, compounded by my work as editor-in-chief and re-entry into classes after a pandemic gap year, was exhausting. 

Of course, my woes are nowhere near the worst housing experiences students have had in just the last few years: Doubles converted to triples, common rooms and study spaces converted to dorms and a mold crisis forcing students to move midway through the term all come to mind. Students who can’t afford to seek off-campus housing, as I did initially, are even worse off. And the off-campus options are not much better; the Upper Valley has faced a persistent housing shortage for years, causing problems for undergraduates and graduate students alike, not to mention the folks that staff the College and Hanover businesses. Extraordinarily, as recently as 2019, 10% of jobs at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center went unfilled due, at least in part, to a lack of housing in the area. 

Fixing the Upper Valley’s housing crisis requires, in the long term, sweeping changes to zoning and land-use regulations that will require years of persistent pressure on local governments. But there’s something students can do next week that will dramatically change the housing landscape in Hanover: Vote for Amendment 11 at the Hanover Town Meeting. 

Amendment 11 revives a 2015 proposal to dramatically rezone portions of West Wheelock Street. The proposal, now dubbed the “Main Wheelock District,” is designed to “increase the number of residential units,” according to the petition submitted to the town in February. 21 lots of land, all of which lie directly adjacent to campus, will be rezoned to allow for denser housing construction. It has the support of the Hanover Planning Board and, if passed, could help alleviate the housing crisis at Dartmouth in just a couple years’ time. 

How? The proposal would adjust a number of onerous zoning laws to allow for more housing on the same amount of land. It would reduce setbacks — the required amount of space on a lot that is not taken up by a building — significantly in those 21 lots. It would also increase the height limit for buildings in the district. The biggest changes, however, would come from reducing the amount of required parking per unit of housing. 

“If a three bedroom place needs 2.5 parking spaces, and you have to round up, that’s a lot of parking spaces,” Jolin Kish of Kish Consulting & Contracting, which manages hundreds of leases across the Upper Valley, told me. “Right now — if you use 14 West Wheelock as an example — you could have more apartments there if you weren’t required to have so much parking there.” 

This is where most people’s eyes glaze over. Zoning, setbacks, parking requirements? These are painfully boring, and besides, could changing them really make that big a difference? 

As it turns out, it can. According to a study provided to me by Student Assembly president-elect David Millman ’23, who is campaigning for the passage of the amendment, four lots in the proposed district — 14 West Wheelock, 28 West Wheelock, 41 West Wheelock and 43 West Wheelock — currently have a maximum housing capacity of about 123 units if developed to their maximum potential. Under the proposed new rules, however, that capacity could increase to as many as 400 housing units — alone, nearly enough to solve Dartmouth’s housing shortage. Of course, it’s unlikely that every property will be expanded to 100% capacity — the study explicitly notes that it did not take into account the steep topography of the area — but they don’t need to be for the housing supply to be radically transformed by this proposal. The study only looked at four of 21 lots, after all. 

Kish told me that if the measure passes, she’ll look at expanding the building at 14 West Wheelock right away, and I have no doubt that the owners of the other buildings on West Wheelock will do the same. Within a couple years, the stretch of road that serves as the entryway to Hanover — currently mostly occupied by old, dilapidated buildings on lots with unused space — could be filled with student-friendly housing right next to campus. Students living there will patronize local businesses, give Dartmouth the flexibility it needs to upgrade its existing dorms and free up housing further afield in town that is more suitable for working families. 

But all of this can only happen if students turn out and vote on Tuesday. Last time this proposal came up for a vote, in 2015, it failed despite the support of the Hanover Planning Board — but only 1,172 people voted in total. By contrast, last summer, when Millman ran his insurgent campaign for the Selectboard and drove student turnout up, more than 1,500 people voted on some amendments

This spring, when far more students are on campus, we have the power to make this happen, but only if enough of us show up to the ballot box. So show up on Tuesday at Hanover High School, and if you need to register to vote in New Hampshire, bring a letter from the Office of Residential Life or other proof of residency in Hanover, proof of U.S. citizenship and an ID to the polls. Once you’re there, vote “Yes” on Article 11 — solving the housing crisis depends on it. 

Kyle Mullins is the former editor-in-chief of The Dartmouth. He is now a member of the Opinion staff and his views do not necessarily represent those of The Dartmouth.

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