Montana communities face a crisis of housing affordability due in large part to an undersupply of available homes. Experts and leaders from all sides of the political spectrum — including President Joe Biden — have come out in favor of streamlining regulations to allow for more housing development, aligning with traditional liberals and free market supporters classically opposed to government intervention in the economy. Even Missoula, notoriously progressive, has begun a comprehensive review with the stated goal of reducing permit times and other regulatory barriers to building houses.
There’s a strong case to make for conservatives to be thrilled about the growing opposition to government housing regulation and the prospect of restoring the rights of property owners.
For the conservative, housing regulations are fundamentally about property rights. Conservatives generally believe that people have an inherent right to own and use their property — to build, sell and do with their property what they like free from the dictates of their neighbors or the government. This notion that property rights are inseparable from human rights was enshrined in America’s founding documents (and Montana’s Constitution). To the conservative, modern zoning and building regulations are a direct infringement on the foundational human right of citizens to control their own land.
Conservative-leaning groups invoke property rights when criticizing local government zoning ordinances, such as restrictions on the rights of property owners to build accessory dwelling units (ADUs). ADUs are typically secondary dwellings built on an existing lot like a guest house, mother-in-law suite or tiny home. Many Montana cities, like Butte and Livingston, prohibit ADUs outright, while other cities, like Kalispell, have voted to begin allowing ADUs, but with some strong regulatory caveats.
Conservatives tend to view such restrictions on ADUs as violations of the rights of property owners. If a homeowner wants to build a guest house and rent it out to college students to supplement their income, the conservative believes they have a right to do that. The same goes for a property owner who wants to rent their house out as an Airbnb, demolish their existing structure to put up a duplex, or any number of other activities that a panoply of local housing regulations currently prohibit.
Zoning and building regulations are also prime examples of attempts by bureaucrats to centrally plan the economy and reshape the very fabric of our traditional communities — something conservatives utterly reject. Urban zoning policies actually began as a progressive movement in the 1920s and ‘30s to atone for the perceived ills of capitalism brought by the Industrial Revolution. Planners sought to push American workers out of traditional multi-use dwellings in city centers and towards a Utopian vision of planned, suburban, single-family neighborhoods centered around the automobile.
In an affront to the principle of local control, another conservative value, the federal government under President Roosevelt pressured local governments to adopt uniform zoning and building codes that carved out wide swaths of cities exclusively for expensive single-family homes.
It would certainly be a peculiar position for a conservative to defend anti-capitalist zoning and building regulations that were implemented top-down by the federal government during a progressive Democrat’s administration, to say the least. For the progressive reformers of the early 20th century, the property rights of individuals were subservient to the interests of the public — or rather, the interests of government planners perceived to be acting on behalf of the public.
By rejecting progressive era urban planning regulations like single-family zoning, minimum lot sizes, setbacks and parking requirements, conservatives favor restoring the original vision of property rights and economic freedom held by America’s founders.
This article originally appeared in Lee Newspapers