Zoning Reforms Will Help Solve Montana’s Housing Crisis
Senator Mandeville and Senator Trebas Friday, October 6th, 2023 1:00pm
There have been dozens of news articles celebrating the historic pro-housing reforms passed in the 2023 Legislature. Many of those national stories call the package of legislation “the Montana Miracle.”
While “miracle” may be a bit generous at this early stage of implementation, as the sponsors of two of the biggest zoning reforms, we’re happy to see Montana’s transformative approach to housing being recognized.
Housing is one of our state’s most urgent and pressing needs. Home prices have escalated beyond the reach of average Montanans in many communities and the prohibitive cost of owning a home is threatening the long-term financial viability of young Montanans and their families.
One of the biggest reasons for skyrocketing home prices is that our housing supply has fallen way behind our population growth. Especially in bigger towns like Missoula and Bozeman, or mid-sized popular hotspots like Whitefish, there simply are not enough homes to go around. When supply is short, prices increase, and only the wealthy can afford to live here.
Since we can’t prevent people from moving to Montana, the only solution to the housing supply problem is to build more houses. There are two main approaches to doing so: massive new developments that eat up agricultural land and forever transform the rural character of Montana, or encouraging more houses to be built within already-developed cities.
As millennials who don’t want to see our children grow up in an unrecognizable Montana made up of concrete jungles, we favor the latter approach. Three of the Legislature’s biggest housing bills were written to build more housing without causing urban sprawl. All three bills were targeted at Montana’s larger towns, where the housing crisis is most acute.
Senate Bill 382 completely rewrites Montana’s land use laws. It gives communities more input into their long-term development plans up front, requires cities to choose from a menu of zoning strategies to allow more affordable housing, and makes it easier to build housing within city limits.
Senate Bill 323 requires cities to allow duplexes in all city zones that allow single-family residences. We don’t have a shortage of mansions in Montana; we have a shortage of affordable starter homes. Duplexes are a mild increase in density with a much lower cost barrier for young families or retirees on fixed incomes.
Senate Bill 245 allows multifamily and mixed-used development in city zones that allow commercial development. If a big-box store and huge parking lot can be built, it only makes sense that apartments or a mix of small business storefronts with apartments above can be built in the same area.
These reforms are only now starting to go into effect, but we’re already seeing positive impacts. Places like Whitefish and Bozeman are completely rewriting their zoning codes to be more friendly to affordable houses. Missoula recently approved housing for 162 more families thanks to a bill passed by the Legislature.
It took decades for Montana’s housing problems to reach our current crisis point. Our housing needs cannot be fixed overnight, but these pro-housing bills passed by the Legislature are a transformative starting point toward creating a future for our state in which it’s still possible for the average Montanan to own a home.
Sen. Forrest Mandeville, R-Columbus, is the sponsor of SB 382 and several other pro-housing bills. Sen. Jeremy Trebas, R-Great Falls, is the sponsor of SB 323