Chun: Hanover’s Housing Crisis: Whose Responsibility Is It?
Hanover’s current housing shortage comes with a high cost to our community. Dartmouth and Hanover must both be part of the solution.
This article is featured in the 2022 Commencement & Reunions special issue.
The town of Hanover — and the Upper Valley at large — has long suffered from a serious affordable housing shortage. Indeed, a 2021 study by Keys to the Valley, an Upper Valley housing organization, found that the Upper Valley is projected to need another 10,000 housing units to meet its growing housing demand by 2030. Not only does this housing shortage pose a threat to Hanover’s economy by preventing workers from finding housing, but it is also detrimental to the social mobility of low-income families and prevents Hanover from flourishing into an inclusive, economically integrated community. To this end, we as a community need to act to address this housing crisis. Furthermore, as the owner of many properties that are promising for development, Dartmouth must be at the center of the solution.
In the past, there have been various attempts to address Hanover’s housing shortage, such as the relaxation of restrictive zoning and regulations in areas that are already served by expensive infrastructure, such as water and sewer, but could be much better utilized than they are now. Most recently, Article 11 — a residential housing ordinance — was passed at the annual Hanover Town Meeting in early May, which should increase housing capacity on West Wheelock Street by allowing for more extensive redevelopment and higher density use.
This kind of progress undoubtedly represents an important step in addressing Hanover’s housing shortage. In fact, the increased housing on West Wheelock Street is projected to open up housing for a whopping 329 more individuals — enough to house all of the students at Dartmouth College who do not get on-campus housing each year. Still, these relaxations in zoning need to be coupled with concerted efforts to also start building housing on currently undeveloped properties. After all, Hanover is a center of residential and economic activity in Upper Valley, and its already-developed areas can only be built out so much while avoiding overcrowding. We need to look to new areas for housing.
Who is responsible for driving these initiatives? Part of the responsibility certainly falls on the town of Hanover. It is up to the town to ensure that Hanover is an economically prosperous, socially inclusive community. But more subtly, part of the responsibility also falls on the College. A little-known reality is that Dartmouth owns many of the empty or underutilized properties in Hanover that are ideal for future development — including the Rivercrest property, Lyme Road and the Sullivan/Gibson tracts (also known as Sand Hill). While all of these areas could be potential locations for new housing, it would not be possible to develop them without agreement and cooperation from Dartmouth. While Dartmouth has proposed various plans to use these lands to build new dormitories that will help address its own student housing shortage, many of these plans, such as a proposal to develop undergraduate housing on Lyme Road South, are less than ideal. Students do not want to commute to the site, and many townspeople do not want the land developed at all.
Thus, I believe that Dartmouth and the town of Hanover should establish a public-private partnership and consider plans to develop the aforementioned Dartmouth-owned lands — not into student dormitories, but into housing for Hanover residents. While Dartmouth is the owner of these lands, the help and resources provided by the town of Hanover will drive the formation of more comprehensive, expert-based plans and allow for better engagement with hesitant town residents. It is key that town residents feel that any new development is done with their needs in mind and not forced on them from above. Ultimately, Dartmouth’s properties will be put to good use — better than the creation of student dormitories that are too far from campus.
Townspeople may still object that they do not want these lands developed. Indeed, many are concerned with maintaining Hanover’s rural charm and aesthetic. However, there are ways to maintain rural character while also building housing. For instance, dimensional and aesthetic standards can regulate the layout, lot size and exterior appearance of new housing to match older styles. Another objection is that Dartmouth itself may not be interested in having its lands developed — even if it receives compensation for this development. After all, doing nothing with its land right now preserves the possibility of being able to do something more appealing with it down the road.
Even so, the reality is that Dartmouth, too, has something to gain. Building residential housing on Dartmouth’s underutilized properties that are slightly farther from campus will help alleviate Dartmouth’s student housing crisis by lessening the competition between students and residents for space close to Dartmouth’s campus. This solution will also help Dartmouth in attracting and maintaining the young faculty and scholars it needs to develop its academic programs in the long term. After all, it’s not possible to teach in Hanover if you can’t live in the area. But perhaps most importantly, I urge Dartmouth to realize the immediacy of Hanover’s current housing shortage. Addressing this housing shortage is imperative to both the economic and social mobility of Hanover. While the solution will not be a simple one, Dartmouth’s cooperation is not only an important starting point, but an integral one.