Whitefish Illustrates Legislature’s Success On Housing Policy
Senators Keith Regier, Carl Glimm, John Fuller, Mark Noland, and Greg Hertz Friday, June 9th, 2023 10:28am
We would like to thank the Whitefish City Council for perfectly illustrating the Legislature’s success on housing policy and demonstrating why we needed to act on zoning reform in the recent legislative session.
One of the many pro-housing bills we passed was Senate Bill 323, which legalizes duplexes in cities with 5,000 or more residents and prevents regulations on them that are more strict than single-family residences. The legislation is important because, as Whitefish City Councilor Steve Qunell noted at the council’s June 5th meeting, “duplexes are probably our most affordable ownership housing product that we can build in the city right now.”
SB 323 was also important because too many cities in Montana prohibit and excessively regulate more affordable types of homes, such as duplexes. Take Whitefish, for example.
In May, the city council moved forward with an onerous new landscaping ordinance that even they recognize makes building homes more expensive. At the recent June meeting, City Councilor Rebecca Norton said it would be “very burdensome for all the single-family homes and duplexes.” Qunell agreed, saying it would be “burdensome and it costs a lot of money.” Councilor Ben Davis similarly noted, “the smaller the project is, the more cost burdensome [the ordinance] is…it does cost thousands of dollars to comply with this.”
Despite Whitefish’s awareness of the costs and regulatory burdens of the ordinance, the council voted to move forward with the regulations at their May meeting, adding many new red tape requirements for duplexes while exempting single-family homes from the rules. When residents of Whitefish and the city’s attorney pointed out that doing so would put the city in violation of SB 323, which prohibits treating duplexes differently than single-family homes, the Whitefish City Council decided to reconsider that decision at their June 5th meeting.
The council eventually voted to exempt duplexes from the new regulations, but two council members made it clear they only did so because of the new state law, not out of any particular concern about housing affordability for their constituents. When other council members tried to also exempt triplexes and four-plexes, Councilor Frank Sweeney said, “What we were doing here this evening was correcting what amounted to a legislative error that we made because of new legislation. I’m not interested in expanding this further than that.” Councilor Rebecca Norton similarly said “we were correcting this because we were non-compliant with state law.”
The council ended up going only as far as the new state law requires. They exempted duplexes but they kept new regulations on other types of more affordable housing that even they acknowledge are “burdensome” and “cost a lot of money.”
We heard a lot from Whitefish, other Montana cities, and their taxpayer-funded lobbyists during the recent legislative session about how the Legislature shouldn’t reform zoning, how we could trust local governments to get serious about Montana’s housing crisis, and how it would be overreach into “local control” for the Legislature to intervene in favor of housing affordability. We disagreed with those arguments.
Instead, we agree with Councilor Qunell when he said this at the council’s June 5th meeting: “requiring duplexes and single-family homes to adhere to [Whitefish’s] new requirements just feels like overreach to me.” It is overreach. Overreach against private property rights and against common sense when we’re trying to make housing more affordable, not even more expensive, in the Flathead Valley.
Senate Bill 323 just saved one type of housing (duplexes) from thousands of dollars of additional expense in Whitefish. SB 323 as originally drafted and passed by the Senate would have also saved even more affordable types of housing (triplexes and fourplexes) from these unnecessary costs and burdens. Unfortunately, city governments got those provisions removed from the bill in the House.
Whitefish has clearly illustrated why the Legislature had to act to address zoning and housing affordability in the recent legislative session. Families in the Flathead and across the state are struggling to find a place to live and make ends meet. We passed many reforms that are being recognized around the nation as transformative pro-housing policy. One of those reforms, SB 323, is already having a positive impact here in the Flathead. As the Whitefish City Council has shown us, we may need to do even more in future legislative sessions.
Senators Keith Regier, Carl Glimm, John Fuller, Mark Noland, and Greg Hertz are Republicans representing the Flathead Valley in the State Legislature.