Single-family zoning helping fuel Montana housing shortage, according to new report

Regulatory and Permitting Subtask
Posted at 5:55 PM, Oct 05, 2022

HELENA — In Montana's most in-demand communities more than 70 percent of residential areas either prohibit or penalize the building of multifamily housing, a zoning regulation fueling some of Montana's housing shortage, according to a preliminary report released Monday by the Governor's Housing Task Force.

While zoning laws are often left to local governments, housing task force member and state Sen. Greg Hertz, R-Polson, said if local governments don't "step up prior to session" with a plan for reforming regulations, then Hertz said he believed "the Legislature will react to that."

The preliminary report detailed 18 possible measures the Montana State Legislature could draft in the next session to address housing scarcity and skyrocketing costs in Montana. The overarching takeaway was the need for zoning regulations to stop prioritizing large single-family homes and start allowing more duplexes, triplexes and fourplexes in residential areas.

During the last session, Hertz introduced a bill to place limits on how cities ban accessory dwelling units, which are basically small apartments built on the same lot as a single-family home. The bill died after strong opposition from cities. In the preliminary report, members included similar opposition from some task force members and the public who said cities know best how to address zoning in their communities.

State Rep. Danny Tenenbaum, D-Missoula, said he understood the instinct to want local control over zoning. However, when cities don't allow development in existing neighborhoods, development builds outward, rather than in filling where existing infrastructure already exists.

"The fact of the matter is," Tenenbaum said. "The policies that Missoula and Bozeman and Whitefish put in place, have a direct effect on the surrounding communities."

Department of Environmental Quality Director Chris Dorrington, who chaired the task force, said between the high costs to buy and rent homes and the shortage of homes and rental vacancies, the lack of housing is hurting everyone. While the report does recommend some state level standards for zoning regulations, he said he acknowledged the challenge is in not putting in place a single policy for all Montana cities.

"I think this is a nudge in a better direction," Dorrington said.

Housing is a struggle in Montana's cities, but also in rural communities, which are just as vital, Dorrington said. Local governments still need to be heard in this process, he said.

The recommendations in the report include possible changes to Montana law, said state Sen. Ellie Boldman, D-Missoula, but the report also proposes some incentives such as infrastructure funding and tax credits. She said the report uses both "a carrot and a stick" to encourage cities to rethink zoning.

Tenenbaum pushed back on the metaphor, and said reforming zoning regulations is only a "stick for certain city planning departments that have been refusing to follow best practices in planning."

"But in terms of it being a stick," Tenenbaum said. "It's not a stick for Montanans. It's very much a carrot for Montanans."

Overall, task force members said the preliminary draft was a good reflection of the many factors contributing to Montana's worsening housing crisis. Boldman commended Gov. Greg Gianforte for creating the task force.

"For the wisdom to see, really, what I think was a crisis in our state," Boldman said. "And to be really deliberate in trying to put together a task force that represented a lot of different interests."

The full report is available on the DEQ's website. Dorrington said he's love to hear from the public and he hoped people would go read it and provide some feedback on the report.

The final draft is due to the governor on Oct. 15.