Why Are We Losing Youth in Portsmouth?

Mike VineLocal Activism

This excellent Letter to the Editor from Freecoaster Jason Walls (edited by yours truly) ran in the Portsmouth Herald last month.

March 16 — To the Editor:

The thinly veiled editorial entitled “Loss of Younger People in City Is Called Frightening” left me dumbstruck. The very mentality of City Councilor Eric Spear and others quoted in the article is the reason that Portsmouth is in this situation in the first place.

First of all, blaming downtown development for the rise in housing prices is exactly backward. Out of all the whining about the rapid development going on, no one seems to realize that it’s happening precisely because people want to live here. And yet, we continue to demand that development conform to some romanticized notion of “historic character” — even when the property in question is currently a parking lot!

The anti-change fanatics in town need to realize that if they desire a more affordable Portsmouth, limiting supply by arbitrarily restricting building height and demanding that everyone and their uncle “has a say” in what others do with private property is the reason property values skyrocket; not the other way around.

Those who spend two minutes considering the issue before forming an opinion only have time to consider the list price of the new condos. They don’t see that the people buying the luxury condo are no longer bidding for that West End duplex or State Street rental that could have gone to a young family. Thank goodness Councilor Shaheen seems to have a basic understanding of these economic principles.

Furthermore, raising property taxes to give more money to schools doesn’t do anything except raise property taxes. It doesn’t automatically make schools better (as countless studies have shown), and creates a negative feedback loop when it comes to the affordability of a town. In the short time so far that I have experienced Portsmouth schools, I found them excellent because they have excellent teachers and strong community supervision. Throwing money at them is not a panacea and, in fact, can distort incentives. Do we think we would get better state representatives by giving them more money?

If education is a public service, then it should be undertaken in the public spirit. If it is simply an industry, then the schools should be privatized and the direct decisions of education consumers and providers will decide what is most effective.

The article in question quotes a myopic demographer from Exeter, who seems to think that low taxes are what causes young people to not want to live here. Listen, Peter, the problem isn’t that “we” don’t “provide” affordable work-force housing — it’s that “we” prevent it from happening freely and openly by trying to preserve decrepit areas of town that should be condemned.

Portsmouth is in direct competition with Boston and the Route 128 circle for tech talent. We could solve the aging population problem in four easy steps: Reduce building restrictions and open zoning to more options (getting rid of blighted areas in the process), reduce property taxes, work more directly with Pease to encourage more companies to move there, and get the state to drastically reduce its onerous taxes on business. You’ll see talent flock here by the thousands to avoid the insanely high taxes and lack of character south of the border.

I am 34. My girlfriend is 29 and has a 6-year-old son. They moved here from across the country precisely because of the opportunities and culture the Seacoast provides. We’re smack dab in the middle of that precious demographic that the city is scared of losing, and we *want* the type of city that the developers are trying to build.

I want a conference center and I want a grocery store in the heart of downtown that will truly make it a walkable city. I want the city to grow.

It’s the policies of NIMBY incumbents that are making young people leave. Release the dam of restrictions and you will see this town flourish.

Jason Walls