Housing crisis

Viewpoint: Gutted zoning is not the answer to Montana’s housing crisis

Robert Horne Jr. and his dog, Grady

Now that Montana has finally realized it has a serious housing problem, “housing experts” have come out of the woodwork to tell us how to fix it. Predictably, when there is a problem to be solved, some of these “experts” try to exploit the problem by using it to advance their political agenda.

The Frontier Institute, which Montana Free Press describes as a “Montana Republican-aligned think tank,” recently released a report that claims that if more multi-family housing were built, the result would be a greater supply of affordable housing for low and middle incomes. families.

Naturally, we would expect such a report to examine ALL relevant factors in the production of multi-family housing, such as financing, cost of building materials, cost of land, supply chain issues, labor shortages, transportation and other infrastructure needs, and performance. on investment. However, this report makes no mention of these factors and simply identifies the “bad guy”: “ZONING!

First, this report, “The Montana Zoning Atlas,” uses a number of loaded terms – terms specifically intended to elicit an emotional response from the reader. It uses the term “exclusive single-family districts” to describe the single-family zoning districts, which each community has.

In professional planning, “exclusionary zoning” is a term used to describe policies aimed at keeping people of certain races, ethnicities, or income levels away from certain communities. The courts began to invalidate this practice in the 1950s, and it is not an ethical or acceptable planning practice today. Even if the phrase were used to describe areas where ONLY single-family homes are permitted, that too would be inaccurate.

For example, in addition to single-family homes, Whitefish’s WR-1 single-family zone allows home occupancies, manufactured home subdivisions, and child care centers for up to 15 children. With a conditional use permit, it allows for many other uses, including accessory residential units, bed and breakfasts, churches and more. It’s hardly “exclusive”.

The authors of The Montana Zoning Atlas have included a set of interactive maps that they say show how some communities are excluding multi-family housing. Titled “How Regulations Exclude, they offer the statement with the maps, “Whitefish is a prime example of how exclusionary single-family zoning practices and minimum lot area requirements are stifling affordable multi-family housing development. ”

However, this is not confirmed by any comprehensive or even meaningful analysis in any of the cities examined by the report.

Although the authors of the study identified “public hearings” as a “sanction” in the multifamily housing process, they serve a legitimate purpose. Public hearings allow local residents to participate in the government decision-making process. It also grants them the right to lawful assembly and freedom of speech, all provided for in the First Amendment.

Public hearings also provide the right to due process guaranteed by the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. Obviously, the authors failed to recognize that the development review process is based on principles established in the US Constitution.

As part of their analysis, the authors examined the lands of Whitefish, Bozeman, Missoula, Kalispell and Helena. However, they only considered land zoned “residential” and therefore overlooked the fact that a significant number of multi-family units are developed in commercial zones.

For example, Missoula’s code allows multi-family buildings in all six of their commercial zones. Whitefish allows multi-family construction in its WB-2 secondary commercial area and currently has HUNDREDS of multi-family units in WB-2 on the south side of town. Many more can be found in the WR-1 single-family district, having been approved through the planned unit development process, all of which have escaped mention of the Frontier Institute.

When you visit the Frontier Institute website, it is clear that much of their material, especially on housing and regulations, is partisan. However, Montana needs more housing, and construction has not kept pace with demand. But simply gutting our local zoning codes and jeopardizing the scale and character of our communities that make them special to us, in the hopes of producing additional, and probably still unaffordable, multi-family units will not solve the problems of Montana housing.

Robert Horne, Jr. (Bob) has been a resident of Whitefish for 17 years. He holds a graduate degree in city and regional planning and has practiced community planning for over 40 years in six states, but primarily in Montana.