It’s no secret that the Flathead Valley has faced a lack of affordable housing and labor for years. But it’s a problem that has worsened in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, as more and more people have moved to the area.
Montana’s population between 2010 and 2020 grew by 10%, but only added 7% more housing units over the same period.
The cost of home ownership and rent have both skyrocketed – now out of reach for many. The Kalispell Chamber of Commerce recently reported that more than half of local renters spend up to 50% of their household income on housing, when the industry standard for affordable housing is 30% or less. .
Additionally, the chamber pointed out that from 2019 to 2021, Kalispell’s median property value increased from $233,500 to $550,000.
There is a complex web of solutions that have been defined to solve the housing crisis, but one simple solution comes up time and time again: build more housing.
Now, a new study has put a sharper focus on the matter, claiming that a specific type of housing may actually help solve the problem.
The Frontier Institute think tank released a report called Montana Zoning Atlas that maps zoning designations in six Montana towns, including Kalispell and Whitefish. It analyzes how the state’s most in-demand communities deal with affordable housing types and what type of homes can be built where.
He found that more than 70% of major residential areas in communities prohibit or outright penalize the construction of affordable multi-family housing. The study indicates that a reform is necessary to facilitate the construction of duplex, triplex and quadruplex style houses in urban neighborhoods.
The report says cities should rewrite zoning codes to accommodate medium-density housing in areas currently set aside for single-family homes.
Proponents argue that because multi-family dwellings use land and building materials more efficiently than single-family homes, they may present an opportunity for more affordable housing.
We challenge city and county officials to carefully review the study to see what can be done locally to encourage mid-density housing that would produce the homes we need for families who want to live here. Then work to rewrite zoning codes, if necessary, to facilitate the development of denser housing.
But don’t stop there. When it comes time to vote on these projects, local officials must approve them knowing that they will add valuable housing to the community, even if it means taking the awkward position that may place them out of favor with some of their neighbors.
Time and time again, we have seen projects come forward that could provide needed housing, but neighborhoods say these projects will destroy their neighborhood.
Change can be hard, and when it comes to your neighborhood, sometimes it’s harder to accept. But it’s time to think about neighborhoods that include single-family homes alongside duplexes, creating desperately needed housing.
As a former Whitefish councilor recently said, protecting the integrity of neighborhoods has come at the cost of protecting the integrity of the entire community.
The Frontier Institute study calls on the Montana Legislature to pass bills requiring local governments to relax their development standards. This is where we disagree, believing that local control is the best option because communities know what is best for them.
However, that doesn’t mean the legislature can’t support the efforts of these local governments, even if it means staying away.
Last session, the Legislature passed a bill limiting the ability of Montana cities to tax affordable housing for new homes, effectively ending housing programs in Whitefish and Bozeman.
Once communities get to work finding solutions to the housing crisis themselves, the Legislature needs to let that happen rather than Helena stepping in.
We all know someone or have a friend of a friend who was forced to move out of the Flathead Valley because they simply couldn’t afford to live here anymore. Soon it will be the children who grew up here but can no longer afford to live where they were raised.
Let’s plan for the future by making housing a priority so that our children and grandchildren, friends and neighbors have a place to call home in the state we all love.