As Montana’s housing crisis grows, more local officials are staking out broad goals of “zoning code reform” to reduce regulations that impede affordable housing development.
Missoula is one city that plans a code reform process in 2022. Missoula’s city planner stated in a recent interview “There are ways our current regulations aren’t adequately meeting what our policy and vision is for the city.”
Missoula officials should be applauded for finally recognizing the need to legalize affordable housing and embrace regulatory reform. But what regulations specifically impact affordability?
Unfortunately, there is no one silver bullet regulation officials can repeal to tame the housing crisis. Instead, local officials need to use a silver shotgun, with repealing minimum lot area requirements loaded as part of the shot in each shell.
For those unfamiliar with complicated zoning codes, let me take a moment to explain. Minimum lot area requirements are common local government regulations which say that a certain type of home can only be built on a certain size of property within a particular zoning district.
For example, local regulations may allow a developer to build a variety of home types on a plot of land but require a minimum 2,700 square feet of lot space for each dwelling unit built. This means a single-family home could be built on a lot as small as 2,700 square feet, while a duplex would need a minimum of 5,400, a triplex 8,100, and so on. Additional lot space would be required even if the actual building takes up no more lot space than a single-family home, as observed in modern stacked duplex and triplex designs.
Land doesn’t come cheap, so requiring larger lots over the standard minimum effectively penalizes multi-family homes by making them more costly to build compared to traditional single-family homes. Since multi-family homes are typically built to be more affordable options for renters and young families, minimum lot area penalties can have an outsized impact on affordability. Research shows that mandating especially large lot sizes over 5,000 square feet can significantly drive up housing costs and restrict housing supply.
Montana’s fastest-growing cities such as Missoula, Bozeman, Kalispell and Billings all maintain minimum lot area requirements which impact affordability. Bozeman’s 2021 code audit called the city’s minimum lot area requirements “a significant contributor to high housing prices for non-single-household development” and recommended Bozeman completely eliminate minimum lot area requirements for all multi-family housing.
While several major cities and states around the country are reforming zoning codes to allow duplexes and triplexes where previously only single-family homes were allowed, housing supply continues to be stifled due to numerous other regulations imposed on housing like minimum lot area requirements, parking mandates and building height limits. When minimum lot area requirements are addressed along with zoning reform, cities tend to see a much larger increase in housing development.
In Montana, Helena recently repealed almost all minimum lot area requirements and Billings moved from a lot area requirement to a simpler lot width requirement. These changes may be one factor keeping average home prices in those cities relatively affordable compared to cities with minimum lot area requirements like Bozeman, Missoula and Kalispell.
If the goal is legalizing affordable housing, tweaks to zoning districts just won’t cut it. Eliminating minimum lot area requirements must be an important consideration for local Montana officials when looking at “zoning code reform” to boost affordable housing.
This article originally appeared in Lee Newspapers