It’s becoming clear that while the recommendations set out by Montana’s Housing Task Force have fairly broad bipartisan support, there continues to be disagreement and concerns over many of the proposals. That means a spirited battle over local control, zoning and housing density may play out in the next Legislative session.
On Wednesday, Governor Greg Gianforte met with the task force as the final version of its Phase 1 report was submitted to him. The task force is now transitioning into the second phase of work, focusing on regulatory changes and recommendations for state and local governments.
Gianforte noted that over the past 12 years, Montana’s population has grown by 10% while the number of new houses has grown by only 7%.
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“We should increase access to starter homes like duplexes, triplexes and townhomes and condos, as well as apartments,” Gianforte said. “And by doing so, a teacher or a police officer can better afford to live where they work.”
He noted that grandparents want to live closer to their children and grandchildren.
“Our families should be able to build an accessory dwelling unit, a smaller, more accessible home or an in-law suite on their property,” Gianforte said. “Unfortunately, zoning regulations have shut them down. It’s time to open them back up.”
However, those recommendations aren’t universally supported. Endorsement of relaxing rules on accessory dwelling units is at odds with Kelly Lynch, the executive director of the nonprofit Montana League of Cities and Towns.
“Their draft report calls for removing parking requirements in every community and allowing a second dwelling unit on every residential lot in Montana,” Lynch wrote in an opinion piece for news outlets across the state recently. “These aren't Montana solutions. These state-down requirements are ideas straight from California.”
The report recommends implementing a state affordable housing tax credit tied to local zoning reform, allowing duplexes where single-family residences are allowed in cities of at least 5,000 residents and allowing duplexes, triplexes and fourplexes where single-family residences are allowed in cities of at least 50,000 residents.
Andrea Davis is the executive director of Homeword, a Missoula nonprofit organization that works to rehab, preserve and build affordable housing across the state.
First and foremost, she said, her organization is pleased that the governor initiated the task force to place more attention on solutions for Montana’s housing crisis.
"There was a recognition for the need for homes for people at 80% of Area Median Income," Davis said. "There was a recognition of Montana being on the edge of a burgeoning homelessness crisis. So the task force report demonstrated a broad understanding of multifaceted elements of the real estate market."
She’s also glad that the task force went beyond regulatory reform and homeownership-based solutions and stated clearly that market-rate development alone can’t address the affordability problem for all Montanans.
"It takes more than regulatory change to solve our housing shortage," she said. "It really takes capital, too."
She also agreed that there should be more staff at the Montana Department of Environmental Quality to work on a backlog of permit applications.
However, there were several provisions that she thought could use different language.
“The recommendation to tie zoning reform to a (proposed) state affordable housing tax credit is something that we believe is too overly prescriptive,” Davis said. “The suggested criteria in the report does not necessarily work for every place in the state. Many localities are already moving toward zoning reform. Zoning reform in Missoula is going to look different than Big Sky or Great Falls. There needs to be an ability for zoning reform to work with other community priorities.”
However, she said, a state affordable housing tax credit could be a powerful tool.
“I would hate to see it not be able to be used in rural communities or in places that can’t comply with the prescribed material in the task force report,” she said.
Davis said the Montana Housing Coalition has three priorities for the next legislative session, which begins this winter. Those are getting the creation of a state affordable housing tax credit, funding an existing program called the Housing Montana Fund and reauthorizing the funding of the Montana Multifamily Coal Trust Homes Program, which allows for coal trust funds to be invested in loan projects that provide multifamily rental homes. All three recommendations were in the report.
Davis noted that the state has a budget surplus of well over $1.5 billion.
“There’s an opportunity to supply capital to make investments in these programs,” she said.
There were many other provisions of the report that she agreed with. One sticking point, though, is that people like her were not invited to sit on the task force.
“I was disappointed no representatives of housing organizations or agencies, human resource councils, community housing organizations like Homeword, were asked to be on the task force,” she said.
She noted that task force member Don Sterhan of the Mountain Plains Equity Group understands housing tax credits and the legislative priorities of the Montana Housing Coalition.
“But yeah, the lack of a housing agency or organization or nonprofit, that was definitely noticed by a number of people,” Davis said.
Missoula Mayor Jordan Hess also supports many of the task force’s recommendations but also has some hesitancy.
“I was pleased to see there’s some shared goals between the governor and our code reform effort,” Hess said. “But a lot of it comes at the expense of local control. Every community in the state has its own character and allowing communities to define that community character is a big part of what makes our communities great. There’s that old adage that the best government is the one closest to the people.”