HELENA — Montana lawmakers have identified the demand for affordable housing as one of the top issues this legislative session. That’s made clear by the number of bills up for consideration on that topic.
“I think that housing is the number-one issue in Montana,” said Andrea Davis, chair of the Montana Housing Coalition. “I think that there are a number of proposals that the legislature is considering, and I think there's a lot of good ideas out there worth discussing.”
The Montana Housing Coalition brings together developers, housing authorities, local government, builders, lenders and other stakeholders to advocate for housing access. This week, the group held a “Housing Day at the Capitol,” where they praised the work of Gov. Greg Gianforte’s housing task force and announced support for a pair of bills inspired by the task force’s recommendations.
One of the bills, sponsored by Rep. George Nikolakakos, R-Great Falls, has not yet been introduced. It would create a state tax credit for new or existing workforce housing projects.
Nikolakakos said any type of new housing would help with the state’s shortage, but this program would be a targeted way to encourage more development of housing that’s immediately affordable.
“Obviously where our shortage is is the kinds of housing that people – everyday people who are working, teachers, firefighters, nurses – those kinds of people can't afford,” he said. “That's what we need.”
A similar bill passed the Legislature in 2021, but Gov. Greg Gianforte vetoed it, saying the cost was uncertain because it was linked to a federal program. Nikolakakos said they plan to remove the link to that program in order to address the governor’s concerns.
The second bill the Coalition highlighted is House Bill 546, sponsored by Rep. Dave Fern, D-Whitefish. It would dedicate another $15 million to the state’s Multifamily Coal Trust Homes Program, which provides loans to support the development and preservation of multifamily rental homes.
“We have a very serious issue with the amount of housing stock available, the quantity, and then, of course, the affordability issue for workforce housing,” Fern said.
In 2019, the Legislature approved $15 million from the state’s permanent coal tax trust fund for the program. They have already allocated that money to projects in places like Belt, Cascade, Havre, Livingston, Helena, Joliet and Laurel.
Davis said, since the money is used for loans, those who receive it will eventually pay it back to the trust with interest. However, she said it’s not coming back fast enough for the state to loan it back out, so the Coalition supports allocating more money to immediately support more projects.
HB 546 is set for an initial committee hearing on Friday morning.
These bills are far from the only ones under consideration. Senate Bill 382, sponsored by Sen. Forrest Mandeville, R-Columbus, had its first hearing on Wednesday afternoon. That bill would be a large-scale overhaul of land use planning laws for local governments. Part of that change would be a requirement that large cities and counties adopt at least five from a list of 15 strategies for encouraging housing development. The proposed strategies include things like reducing minimum lot sizes, allowing accessory dwelling units in all residential areas and lowering fees for new housing development.
The Montana League of Cities and Towns is supporting SB 382. Leaders told MTN last month that they saw it as a better alternative to other bills that create statewide directives that all communities must follow.
Several bills that would direct municipalities to make specific zoning changes are up for consideration, including:
- House Bill 337, from Rep. Katie Zolnikov, R-Billings, which would prohibit cities and towns from requiring a minimum lot size of more than 2,500 square feet, if a lot has both municipal water and sewer service.
- House Bill 553, from Rep. Alice Buckley, D-Bozeman, which would require municipalities to allow accessory dwelling units in all residential areas and to treat manufactured homes the same as other homes in their zoning.
- Senate Bill 245, from Sen. Daniel Zolnikov, R-Billings, which would require cities with more than 7,000 residents to allow multifamily and mixed-use development.
- Senate Bill 323, from Sen. Jeremy Trebas, R-Great Falls, which would limit the ways large cities can restrict duplex, triplex and fourplex housing.