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Guest Editorial: Regulations stand in the way of attainable housing

We are five of the youngest lawmakers in the Montana Legislature. At 20, 21, 24, 29, and 31 years old, we are in various stages of renting and home ownership, and all of us are concerned about the housing crisis facing Montana. In every one of our communities—Billings, Belgrade, Columbia Falls, and even Malta—housing is rapidly becoming more expensive and harder to find.

Many of the factors causing the housing crisis, such as migration, supply costs, and the labor shortage, are largely outside of Montana’s control. But a recent analysis by the Frontier Institute highlights one of the biggest problems, and it’s one that’s fully within our power to address: government regulations.

Montana needs more housing to meet the massive demand and keep prices within reach for average hardworking people, but building isn’t cheap or easy. Local governments in many parts of the state have enacted ridiculous amounts of red tape restricting what people can and can’t do with their own property.

The Frontier Institute’s Montana Zoning Atlas looked at zoning restrictions in six of Montana’s towns with the highest demand for housing. What the data and mapping analysis found was damning: Missoula prohibits attainable housing development in 75% of residential areas. In Bozeman it’s 51% and in Kalispell it’s 56%. All three of those towns have restrictions on attainable housing in 100% of residential areas. Only 12% of Whitefish is open and unrestricted.

Billings is a bit better with 42% of residential land open and unrestricted, but it still prohibits attainable development on the rest. Helena is the most housing-friendly town analyzed; 0% of its residential areas prohibit or restrict attainable housing. It’s no surprise then that, even though Billings and Helena also have housing challenges, their residents have been able to navigate the crisis better than people in Bozeman, Kalispell, Whitefish, and Missoula.

As Montana legislators, we want the future of our state to include the ability to live here and raise a family. We also want to preserve the character of Big Sky Country with our vast open spaces. Local zoning restrictions are putting all that at risk. Regulations are increasing the cost of housing, driving out young people and families without the money to make ends meet, and encouraging urban sprawl across rural areas by limiting development in town.

Ideas like price caps and subsidies that some have proposed can’t address the supply problem, in fact, they’d only make it worse. When there isn’t enough housing to go around, cost shifts will only create animosity among neighbors, suppress the incentives to build more, and force Montanans who can’t find a home onto the streets or out of the state.

We can’t stop people from moving to Montana. We can’t control the supply chain, the labor force, or rising inflation. What we can do is get unnecessary regulations out of the way and embrace freedom for the people to decide the future of our towns, not the government.

This housing crisis has been growing for decades. Now, we can’t wait for solutions and hope the problem goes away. If young people can’t afford to live and raise a family here, the future of Montana is at stake.

Reps. Casey Knudsen (Malta), Caleb Hinkle (Belgrade), Katie Zolnikov (Billings), Mallerie Stromswold (Billings), and Braxton Mitchell (Columbia Falls) are all Republicans. This column was originally published as part of the Frontier Institute’s “Legislative Viewpoint” series.