MTLeg Viewpoint: Affordable Housing: Cut the Red Tape, But Don’t Stop There
"We are facing the question of whether Montana will continue to be a place where working and middle class folks can afford to build a future for themselves and their families."
Montanans know we are facing a housing crisis. Almost every day we hear from small businesses, community leaders and working folks across the state about how our constituents are being forced out of their communities by skyrocketing housing prices. A crisis this dire demands a bold response and if we fail to rise to the challenge, Montana risks becoming a playground for the rich while working Montanans find themselves priced out of the state they love.
One of the drivers of this crisis is basic supply and demand: Montana’s population grew 10% in recent years, but the housing supply only grew 7%. The Frontier Institute’s recent “Montana Zoning Atlas” highlights one of the drivers of this mismatch — outdated and regressive zoning regulations that block the construction of multi-family housing. At a time when we are in a supply crunch, multi-family housing like duplexes and triplexes can provide more bang for the buck. And increasingly, these homes are most in reach for younger, first-time homebuyers.
But red tape blocks the construction of homes like this in most Montana cities, as the Zoning Atlas shows. During the 2021 Legislative Session, Democratic Rep. Danny Tenenbaum sponsored HB 134 to address this problem. That bill would prohibit exclusionary zoning regulations and let landowners build duplexes in cities of 5,000 or more people, and triplexes and fourplexes in cities with 50,000 or more residents. Like the Frontier Institute, we see HB 134 as an essential part of the solution to Montana’s housing crisis. We are eager to work with county and local leadership from across the state to find a path forward with this bill that works for our communities.
Practical zoning is one strategy for tackling the housing supply crunch, and we must address the others as well. Building more homes will only help if folks can afford to live in those homes, and prior to 2021, some cities in Montana were deploying strategies to encourage the development of affordable housing in their cities. But Republicans in the Legislature slammed the brakes on this work with the passage of HB 259. This ill-considered bill arrested locally-driven progress to keep Montanans in Montana, and we will be working to right this wrong.
Duplexes and triplexes are great homes, but they might not make for the splashiest Zillow listings. In addition to freeing up land for multi-family housing, we are eager to reward landowners who want to build this kind of critical infrastructure for the good of their communities and state. There’s a lot of money in building the kinds of houses that are attractive to window shoppers from California or New Jersey, so we need to make sure we are incentivizing the builders who create homes Montanans can afford to buy or rent.
Once we’ve built housing that works for Montana, we have to make sure it’s Montanans who get to live there. The tourism industry is an important part of our modern economy, but we need a balanced approach to catering to out-of-state tourists who cycle through often using a series of short-term Airbnb rentals. Montana cities have been putting sidebars on the growing industry of short-term rentals for several years. We should build on their efforts to put more housing on the market for folks who actually live in Montana.
Montana is at a crossroads. We are facing the question of whether Montana will continue to be a place where working and middle class folks can afford to build a future for themselves and their families. Answering that question is going to require creativity and compromise. Democrats are ready to do that hard work in the next Legislature, because we know a stronger Montana depends on it.
House Minority Leader Kim Abbott, D-Helena, represents House District 83. Senate Minority Leader Jill Cohenour, D-East Helena, represents Senate District 42.
Frontier Institute’s Mtleg Viewpoint series provides an opportunity once per month for Montana legislators to deliver an update about topics that matter to our followers. Offers to publish columns were made and remain open to both the Legislative Majority and Minority. Opinions expressed by guest authors do not necessarily represent the positions of the Frontier Institute.