We need local solutions
Governor Gianforte’s Housing Task Force released its draft recommendations to address housing in Montana. These include forcing every community to allow accessory dwelling units (ADUs) on every residential lot, removing local restrictions on how small lots can be, and stopping local governments from requiring parking spaces for new development. These recommendations to remove local regulations are not surprising because the Task Force began with the assumption that local regulations are the primary cause of the housing crisis in Montana.
The state has spent billions in marketing to convince people to move here to work, live, and play. Now they are here, and we can no longer afford to live in our own communities. Housing advocates, local governments, planners, and other experienced public and private sector organizations have been working to solve the housing problem for years and find solutions to ensure that people can find a home they can afford. The complex intersection of virtual employment, the high price and scarcity of building materials, increasing land prices, labor shortages, and chronic lack of state support for housing programs require multi-layered solutions and public-private partnerships. In some communities, water and sewer services are inadequate for the new growth. In others, land prices make housing development too expensive. And in yet another, public opposition to a new development becomes insurmountable. There is no one solution.
Our state’s outdated land use and planning laws, which only allow review and public participation after an application is submitted, make the development approval process long, expensive, and uncertain. These antiquated laws and processes stand in the way of increasing our housing supply. Fortunately, the 2021 Legislature decided to create a Land Use Interim Working Group to officially look at an overhaul of land use and laws in Montana. This committee includes representatives from the realtors, builders, land surveyors, professional planners, clerks and recorders, and engineering companies, in addition to the Montana League of Cities and Towns, the Montana Association of Counties, and a bipartisan group of legislators. This working group has been meeting regularly since 2021 to carefully craft a proposal that helps developers with faster, less expensive review processes to help make projects pencil out.
Modernizing land use and planning laws are a far cry from the one-size-fits-all zoning reforms that the Housing Task Force recommends. Their draft report calls for removing parking requirements in every community and allowing a second dwelling unit on every residential lot in Montana. These aren’t Montana solutions. These state-down requirements are ideas straight from California. The state shouldn’t dictate such zoning reforms – they should be based on local circumstances, needs, and priorities. Removing parking requirements for communities without bus systems can result in less mobility and access. Additional dwelling units without local permitting will lead to inadequate sewer treatment in some communities. Our local elected officials know what their communities need and the solutions to build more housing in their communities.
Montana’s cities and towns want to work with the Legislature to demonstrate what they need locally to create more housing. We support local decision-making on what zoning reforms work best in each of our communities. We need more investment to expand our infrastructure capacity to serve increasing populations with drinking water, sewer treatment, and road construction and maintenance. We need to increase the state’s commitment to financing the construction of housing people can afford. We need to modernize our state planning laws. These solutions are complicated, long-term, and require large-scale investments, but this is the hard work necessary to truly address Montana’s housing crisis.
Kelly Lynch is the Executive Director of the Montana League of Cities and Towns, a nonpartisan, nonprofit association supporting 127 Montana communities to provide resources and advocacy to build and maintain unique, vibrant, healthy, and safe communities.