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Has Montana solved its housing crisis?

A spate of new state laws will spur housing development. Will anyone be able to afford what's getting built?

Connie Howell has lived in Montana for 40 years, nearly half that time in a tan-and-brick apartment complex in Bozeman. It's always been a pleasant place, with a small courtyard and distant views of the Bridger Mountains. But since 2015, the rent for the one-bedroom unit that she shares with her husband, Chris, has nearly doubled.

The couple, who depend on Social Security and disability payments, now put about half of their monthly gross income toward rent. Affordable housing, in contrast, is generally defined as costing no more than 30% of a household's gross income.

Howell has seen friends leave Bozeman because they could no longer afford housing, and her daughter hasn't been able to move back here for the same reason. Compared to them, she considers herself lucky. But at age 65, she is "scared to death" of that luck running out - of something happening to her or Chris, since neither could make rent on their own.

"I get this thought in the pit of my stomach that just sometimes won't go away," she said. "I don't know how I would survive, and I don't know how he would survive."

Montana, like much of the country, is experiencing a housing crisis. At the start of 2020, the value of a typical home here was $282,277, according to Zillow; now it's $453,567, a leap of 60%. Renters suffered, too: In Lewis and Clark County, which includes the state capital, Helena, rents jumped 37% in two years, ranking it fifth among all U.S. counties for rent growth. Across the state, the rental vacancy rate plunged from a healthy 6.9% in 2017 to just 3.2% in 2022.

These rapid changes prompted Gov. Greg Gianforte to appoint a bipartisan housing task force in summer 2022. The group's recommendations led the state Legislature to pass a raft of housing-related bills in its 2023 session. The speed and breadth of the changes garnered national attention, with some even dubbing the reforms "the Montana miracle."

Yet many Montanans, who find themselves and their neighbors unhoused, insecurely housed or fiscally imprisoned in dilapidated digs, deride this characterization. They say they're not feeling any miracles - and that, even if the recent bills boost the housing supply, many people will be left in the lurch because lawmakers failed to adequately address affordability.

Even experts aren't sure how Montana's strategy will fare. Martha Galvez, executive director of New York University's Housing Solutions Lab, was heartened by the state's progress, calling it a "pretty impressive change in a pretty short amount of time," but she wasn't ready to declare victory yet. "It'll be interesting to watch how these new changes play out," she said.

BETWEEN 2020 AND 2022, with many people eager to flee cities and live out their Yellowstone fantasies, Montana added more than 40,000 new residents. And just 8,700 new homes. Some of these newcomers were remote workers, who brought their incomes with them: The share of Montana households earning more than $200,000 annually rose by more than a third in recent years, the largest surge of any state by far. As these high earners sought housing, and as the costs of materials and labor went up, prices ballooned.

"A decade ago, (Montanans) could get into a rental, get a job that paid a wage that covered their needs, save up for a down payment and reasonably buy a home," said Kaia Peterson, executive director of NeighborWorks Montana, a nonprofit housing organization. "That formula really doesn't exist in most places anymore."

As similar scenes unfurl throughout the West, some say there's a relatively simple solution: Build more housing. Though this approach has its skeptics - those who argue that more development merely leads to more luxury condos and gentrification - Galvez's NYU colleagues have found otherwise. In two reports that analyzed dozens of academic studies, the authors concluded that building more housing can, eventually, lower prices for low- and middle-income families, through several different mechanisms.

One is by sparking so-called "chains of mobility": As wealthy people move into brand-new granite-countered, stainless-steel-applianced developments, their former, slightly less shiny housing becomes available to those with slightly lower incomes, and so on down the line. Plus, housing units often grow less desirable with age, which means that today's new builds could, decades down the road, become tomorrow's bargains.

The build-more solution "is just basic economics," said Eugene Graf IV, fourth-generation Bozeman homebuilder and member of the state's housing task force. "Prices are going to go up if there's not supply." The task force embraced this theory, and Montana's Legislature followed suit.

It passed a slew of measures intended to promote greater and denser development, such as requiring cities to allow duplexes and accessory dwelling units and eliminating minimum lot sizes and parking requirements. Legislators also increased funding for a trades education credit to address the state's shortage of skilled laborers, and for infrastructure like sewers and roads.

The state front-loaded its public review process for certain subdivisions, too. Under the old system, residents could comment on developments as they arose; now, Montanans must voice their concerns when cities are creating land-use plans. Once those plans are completed, any conforming developments will proceed by right. Combined with other red-tape-cutting measures, Graf, the builder, estimated the changes could halve the time needed to construct a new subdivision: from roughly four years to two.

MORE SUBDIVISIONS, however, are only half the equation. The other half is making sure that people can afford to live in them. As the NYU researchers wrote: "New market rate housing is necessary but not sufficient. Government intervention is critical to ensure that supply is added at prices affordable to a range of incomes."

And despite a $2.5 billion surplus in the state budget, Montana lawmakers chose not to pass several affordable housing measures during the 2023 session, instead spending nearly half of it on tax cuts and rebates. Just $106 million was devoted to down-payment assistance for middle-income homebuyers and low-interest loans to developers of affordable multi-family housing.

Benjamin Patrick Finegan, co-founder of Bozeman Tenants United, sees this as a major misstep. "Unregulated building of more housing isn't going to ensure that people who live and work in Montana and are trying to build lives here and start families will actually be able to do that," said Finegan, a 26-year-old whose own parents have been priced out of the city. "The creation of new housing and ensuring that it's affordable, I think, have to go hand-in-hand."

The Republican-controlled Legislature voted down several affordable housing proposals, including a housing tax credit, which would have incentivized affordable rental development, and a housing trust fund, which could have subsidized the construction of roughly 500 additional low-income apartments every year. (Gianforte's office declined to answer questions about the importance of affordability.)

Finegan is frustrated that the housing task force, which is mostly composed of developers, politicians and government officials, doesn't include anyone who is, to his knowledge, housing insecure. (It does include representatives from Shelter WF and Habitat for Humanity, two housing nonprofits.) "More conversations about the housing crisis are good," Finegan said. "But they need to be had with the right people: people that are experiencing the housing crisis."

In November, Montana voters expressed their frustrations by electing one of the tenants group's co-founders as mayor of Bozeman, and Andrea Davis, former executive director of the nonprofit organization Homeword, as mayor of Missoula. Davis wishes lawmakers had placed a greater emphasis on immediate affordability in the last session. "We could have helped alleviate some of the pressure right now, versus waiting for the market to respond," she said, referring to the fact it could take years before more housing results in lower prices. "The need is now."

Affordable housing advocates hope to soon see more support for subsidized and deed-restricted units, which mandate resale conditions to keep prices affordable. They want to see inclusionary zoning, a practice that requires developers to devote some units to low- and middle-income families or else pay a fee - and which was implemented in Bozeman and Whitefish before the Legislature banned it in 2021. (State lawmakers banned rent control, too, in 2023.) Advocates also want heavily touristed cities to pass regulations, as Bozeman recently did, that ensure more homes are occupied by locals, rather than vacationers or second-home owners.

As for whether Montana's new housing strategy will live up to its hype, Davis said to check back in five years. If, at that point, firefighters and teachers can afford housing, then the state will, indeed, have pulled off something of a miracle.

This story was originally published at https://www.hcn.org/issues/55.12/housing-has-montana-solved-its-housing-crisis.

Susan Shain reports for High Country News through The New York Times' Headway Initiative, which is funded through grants from the Ford Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF), with Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors serving as fiscal sponsor.

 
 
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