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Housing Task Force presents recs to Governor

A task force charged with identifying solutions for Montana's housing crunch formally passed recommendations for legislative action to Gov. Greg Gianforte Wednesday, teeing up debates over state subsidies and local control that appear likely to play out as specific housing bills are considered by lawmakers this winter.

The group, appointed by the governor in July, had been asked to recommend measures that could be implemented by the Legislature to reduce the burden placed on many Montanans by the state's tight housing market, with a particular emphasis on actions that could make it easier for private developers to build new homes. The task force is now set to develop a second set of recommendations focused on administrative action that could be taken by state agencies in the coming months.

An initial draft of the task force's legislative proposals was released earlier this month and the group published a final report last week. Its recommendations, 18 in all, articulate a variety of housing strategies but focus primarily on boosting construction. The group didn't make specific recommendations for tax- or regulatory-based housing strategies, such as providing property tax relief to homeowners or restricting Airbnb-style short-term rentals.

Some task force proposals would work through public investment, for example by establishing a housing infrastructure grant program that could help cities and counties pay for the streets and sewer lines necessary to serve higher-density housing projects, or by authorizing additional funding for the state's existing affordable-housing programs. While the state is currently running a budget surplus, that additional funding would have to face scrutiny from fiscal hawks in the Republican-controlled state Legislature and compete with the Republican governor's own desire to enact additional tax cuts.

Other recommendations would have the Legislature preempt some town and county zoning powers in an effort to promote home construction by, for example, mandating universal accommodations for accessory dwelling units such as above-garage apartments or forcing large cities to permit duplex, triplex and fourplex-style construction in neighborhoods that are currently restricted to single-family homes.

Those latter measures have been generally criticized by local government leaders as "one-size-fits-all" overreach that could produce unintended consequences, such as forcing cities to approve denser development in areas that don't have enough sewer capacity to accommodate additional toilet flushes. 

Gianforte praised the task force's work Wednesday, touting comparatively dense housing approaches like duplexes, townhomes, condos and accessory dwelling units as a way to ensure workers like teachers and police officers have places to live.

"Families should be able to build an accessory dwelling unit, a smaller, more accessible home, or an in-law suite, on their property," Gianforte said. "Unfortunately, as we have uncovered in this work, zoning regulations have shut them down."

The governor also described homeownership as a foundational aspect of the American dream, but said it's a goal that has become less attainable for many Montanans as population growth has outstripped home construction.

"When it comes down to it, the health and well-being of families, our communities, our businesses and our economy rely on access to affordable, attainable housing," Gianforte said. "Hardworking Montanans should be able to live in the communities where they work."

Many if not most Montana communities have seen rents and for-sale prices spike in recent years as an influx of pandemic-era migration has collided with the state's finite supply of homes. Real estate website Zillow says the typical home value in the state was an estimated $464,000 in September, up from $289,000 at the beginning of 2020. A poll commissioned by University of Montana researchers this spring reported three-quarters of Montana respondents considered lack of affordable housing an "extremely" or "very" serious issue.

In an opinion column published in multiple Montana newspapers last week, Montana League of Cities and Towns Executive Director Kelly Lynch criticized the task force's zoning recommendations, calling them "ideas straight from California" that dictate reforms better left to the discretion of municipal leaders.

"These recommendations to remove local regulations are not surprising because the Task Force began with the assumption that local regulations are the primary cause of the housing crisis in Montana," Lynch wrote. 

In fact, she argued, the state's housing woes stem from a combination of factors, including "virtual employment," shortages of construction material and labor, and "chronic lack of state support for housing programs." She also noted the state has spent heavily on marketing aimed at encouraging people to move to Montana.

"Now they are here, and we can no longer afford to live in our own communities," Lynch wrote.

In an interview Wednesday, Lynch said she's enthusiastic about many of the task force's ideas, such as an incentives-based approaches to help municipalities build out the water and sewer capacity necessary to support new housing, and a proposal to modernize land use planning statutes. But, she said, she's skeptical of the zoning preemption push.

"I think that we can get a lot better results by giving local governments the tools they need, by going through the process to figure out which reforms work best for their community," she said.

Andrew Hagemeier, a Montana Association of Planners board member, expressed similar concerns in an interview this month. He likes many of the task force's ideas, he said, but worries some of its zoning proposals are too proscriptive, leaving local officials too little leeway to deal with the unexpected consequences that routinely pop up when zoning rules are changed.

"You can't even take a one-size-fits-all approach within a local community, let alone the entire state of Montana," said Hagemeier, who also works as a planner for Missoula County.

Hagemeier said he'd prefer the state to take an incentives-based approach to zoning reform that allows local governments more flexibility as they try to give their residents more housing options. When rules are etched into state law, they can only be changed by the Legislature in its every-other-year sessions, he noted, whereas most city councils meet once a week - giving them opportunities to fix issues much faster.

He does agree that it's time to overhaul the state's land use planning system, Hagemeier also said.

"If the bill is written correctly, it could give local jurisdictions the kick in the butt to get something done," he said.

The task force's 26 members include building industry leaders, state agency heads and Republican and Democratic lawmakers. The group also includes representatives from local governments, conservative think tanks, housing nonprofits and multiple members who identify as progressive housing activists. The task force has been chaired by Department of Environmental Quality Director Chris Dorrington and co-chaired by Montana Chamber of Commerce President/CEO Todd O'Hair.

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