A conversation with Peter Nichols, New London Housing Commission Chair

  • An aerial view of New London New Hampshire at sunset

    An aerial view of New London New Hampshire courtesy of the Town of New London

Peter Nichols is Chair of the New London Housing Commission and is also a retired developer. He attended the first in-person Housing Academy session in February 2023. We chatted on the phone in October 2023, and was kind enough to share his perspectives on the work the Housing Commission has been doing since then.

One of the key takeaways of our conversation is how Peter breaks community engagement into two phases: one to understand a challenge, which can be followed by outreach and education; then, a subsequent phase where the community can leverage what they’ve learned, from each other and from experts, to choose a solution together that they know will meet their needs.

Lyla: What works for community engagement?

Peter: Over the past year, community engagement has helped the New London Housing Commission understand the challenges posed by a lack of affordable housing. We’ve been talking with business owners about workforce shortages and how the lack of housing is making it hard to recruit and is raising overall costs. We held a panel of large and small local employers to illuminate the connection between the shortage of labor and housing conditions.

We’ve noticed that community engagement has been most successful when there is a specific focus. It is important to distinguish what we’re doing from master planning. We are not imagining the whole future of the town but dealing with a concrete challenge. Importantly, you need a two-way street, and I’m a big fan of the Socratic Method. This lets us take a long-ranged approach to community engagement that can take the strength out of not-in-my-back-yard attitudes (NIMBYism) and allow for real conversations.

“You need to do thoughtful outreach and education to make sure that the community can decide from an informed place.” - Peter Nichols

Lyla: What are some of the challenges you’ve encountered with community engagement?

Peter: We always have to ask if the general public knows enough about a particular issue yet to hold an open session or if we first need expert perspectives and opinions. One underlying challenge of this work is that, if you just jump to considering policies without laying the groundwork, you can adopt the policies that the voting community says they support, and the ballot item will pass, but that doesn’t ensure it is an effective policy. You need to do thoughtful outreach and education to make sure that the community can decide from an informed place.

As an example of this, we looked at the Two Rivers Ottauquechee Study, which is a study on ADUs (accessory dwelling units) completed by the Two Rivers-Ottauquechee Regional Commission and Keys to the Valley in Vermont. The study is a thorough analysis of ADU programs in three cities seeking to expand housing, with some for-profit and some non-profit programs. It provided expert information that community engagement could not provide. However, moving forward with that information, community engagement will be a part of deciding which approach, if any, the Town of New London should adopt. We also have an ADU Handbook developed by the Kearsarge Neighborhood Partners, which is directed towards informing the New London community on how to create an ADU.

In New London, we use a 3-part approach:

  1. It starts with listening carefully. The Planning Board, Selectmen, and Housing Commission are tasked with this. This step also involves working with influential community members who may have strong opinions.
  2. Next, you need good planning to ensure that public policy will reflect and meet the long-term goals of the community. In this regard, a good municipal planner is invaluable.
  3. Finally, a town may bring in consultants for specialty knowledge, like the Vermont ADU study. Consultants can provide information for the community that the public and the planner would not otherwise have or be able to deliver as effectively.

Lyla: How is it going with the Housing Commission?

Peter: So far so good, but we have much work to do. I would highly recommend forming a Housing Commission. It can be a powerful tool. The State Statute established a format that a municipality can simply adopt as a whole or modify as needed, and in our case, it has been working really well, so far. One big advantage is that it does not require the Housing Commission to make any final decisions. We serve purely in an advisory capacity to the Planning Board and Selectmen, and thus, diving deep into all issues relating to housing, we can engage more freely and explore alternatives better, while allowing the regulatory boards and elected officials to make the informed decisions.

As a first point in initiating community engagement, our Housing Commission did a survey. We also consulted with local business owners and asked for extensive public input at meetings. Our town has felt the effects of a number of trends: the labor shortage and youth leakage have been big concerns, leading some restaurants to close. People are also having trouble finding qualified workers in the trades, such as carpenters, electricians, plumbers, etc. On top of this, more people in town are retiring, and some want to downsize but can’t.

The Housing Commission has also been building attendance at their meetings and educational events. One successful tactic is having common meetings with the Board of Selectmen and the Planning Board.

Lyla: How do you know when you’ve done enough community engagement to move forward?            

Peter: On any specific issue, enough community engagement is when you have mutual understanding and buy-in for the long-term. That’s hard to judge, as it is just a feeling, but the members of the Housing Commission have good ears to the public sentiment in town.

This interview is part of a series of articles following up with communities who participated in the 2023 Housing Academy.

Additional resource: Housing Commissions in New Hampshire: A guide for municipalities