Time For Action On Housing Affordability

Time For Action On Housing Affordability

"We need bold pro-housing reforms on a statewide scale to give landowners in Montana cities the freedom to build more homes to meet demand."

As we head into week three of the Montana Legislature, it’s no surprise that one topic is at the forefront: housing. Nearly 100 bill proposals target housing reforms — more than double the number of bills focused on housing reforms during the 2021 Session. These are clear signs that after years of talk, leaders on both sides of the aisle are ready to address Montana’s housing crisis head on.

Policy action on housing affordability can’t come soon enough for the renters, young families and working Montanans who are rapidly getting priced out of our growing cities. Gov. Greg Gianforte’s Housing Task Force noted that strict local zoning regulation outright prohibits the most affordable types of starter homes like duplexes, townhomes, and triplexes in vast portions of Montana cities. People aren’t just getting priced out of Montana cities, they are getting zoned out.

New data confirms this dynamic. Frontier Institute’s new Montana Zoning Atlas 2.0 report, one of seventeen state atlases being built by over three dozen universities, nonprofits and public agencies as part of the National Zoning Atlas project, which aims to depict the nation’s 30,000 zoning codes in a clear, publicly accessible map. The Montana Zoning Atlas 2.0 shows that 50% of zoned land in thirteen of Montana’s most in-demand counties either outright prohibit or penalize medium-density home types. Among the major cities assessed in the report, two-family housing is on average welcomed by-right on 41% of zoned land, while three-family housing welcomed on just 29%.

Zoning out the middle market in this manner has a big impact on affordability. Slightly denser homes like duplexes are some of the most affordable options for home ownership, yet getting government permission to build one in some Montana cities can be a nightmare.

Despite being plagued by a looming housing shortage and rising costs, the Atlas shows 92% of zoned areas in Great Falls either outright prohibit or penalize building duplexes. Cities like Missoula aren’t much better with over 60% of zoned land prohibiting or penalizing duplexes.

Accessory Dwelling Units (ADU’s) are another type of affordable starter home welcomed in some Montana communities but outright banned in others. ADU’s often take the form of a basement or a garage converted to an apartment and are widely recognized as a low-impact way to build more homes in existing urban areas. Despite this, the Atlas shows that Butte astonishingly prohibits ADU’s in nearly 100% of the city.

To their credit, some local governments have taken positive steps. Missoula County just completed an entire overhaul of their zoning code and now permits duplexes by-right throughout all residential zones. Whitefish and Bozeman recently implemented revisions aimed at welcoming more ADU’s. Bozeman also adopted incentives intended to allow more flexibility for minimum lot areas and parking requirements. Helena and Billings have implemented sweeping changes to address excessive minimum lot areas.

These are good incremental improvements, but much more needs to be done. We need bold pro-housing reforms on a statewide scale to give landowners in Montana cities the freedom to build more homes to meet demand. A true pro-housing platform should advance many of the recommendations made by the Montana Housing Task Force, including:

  • Broadly restore landowners’ right to build starter homes like ADU’s, duplexes, townhomes and triplexes in cities.
  • Eliminate excessive minimum lot area requirements greater than 2,500 sq ft. in cities.
  • Consider well designed incentive programs which would tie state housing funding to successful local zoning reforms.
  • Allow manufactured housing where other residential uses are also permitted.

Montanans are ready for action on housing. Hopefully Montana leaders are up for the task.

This column originally appeared in Lee Newspapers.

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