By Ann Schwend
Montana’s accelerated growth spurred a record number of bills at the 2023 Legislative Session. Unfortunately, the primary focus was how to build more homes quickly, not sustainably. MEIC’s work on sustainable communities means we lobbied on bills that don’t seem to have an overt connection to environmental issues on the surface, but their implications are significant for water resources, energy efficiency, habitat, and climate impacts. (Learn more about this connection in this article)
Many bills this session focused on the idea that if the government gets out of the way (regulatory reforms) then developers can build large custom homes at will and free up less expensive homes for everyone else. This concept of “trickle-down housing” does little to solve the crisis that Montana is currently facing. The gap between affordable homes and median wages just doesn’t line up; with median household incomes in Montana around $57,000 and median home prices in many of Montana’s cities exceeding $400,000, housing is unaffordable for most Montana residents. Not only that, but the number of people moving to Montana is not slowing down.
Skirting Subdivision Environmental Reviews
Proponents for expediting development advocated to greatly reduce, eliminate, or outsource local or state agency oversight of subdivision review to purportedly reduce bottlenecks and address the housing crunch. While there is always room for improvement, expanding the loopholes (HB 642, Rep. Casey Knudsen, R-Malta) or exemptions for family transfer (SB 158, Sen. Jason Ellsworth, R-Hamilton), or exempting more development from environmental review (SB 152, Sen. Forrest Mandeville, R-Columbus) doesn’t guarantee home affordability. Fortunately, HB 642 did not pass, but the other bills have been signed by the Governor. Truly affordable homes are built within proximity to regulated public services (e.g., sewer, water, existing roads), where residents can readily access community amenities, not on one-acre parcels in subdivisions outside of town.
Another popular approach was zoning reform, particularly in fast-growing municipalities. Zoning reform can have huge impacts on where and how housing is built and can mean the difference between climate-friendly infill utilizing existing infrastructure or climate-damaging sprawl relying on septic systems and individual wells, which increases the strain on electricity, habitat, and water resources.
A number of bills targeted increased density in urban areas, including allowing accessory dwelling units (ADUs), multifamily housing, or mixed-use developments. As an environmental organization, MEIC’s priority is to discourage unsustainable sprawl which has significant environmental impacts (see article). MEIC supported some of these bills, but it was difficult to find a comfortable balance between supporting zoning reform that would allow increased density near existing public utilities and overriding local decision-making.
The Montana Land Use Planning Act (SB 382, Sen. Forrest Mandeville, R-Columbus) was one of the biggest bills of the session in regard to changing land use planning processes. This bill is the result of a self-selected interim working group, led by the League of Cities and Towns with input from the Local Government Interim Committee. It excluded participation by environmental interests which resulted in a number of serious flaws in the bill. The concept behind the bill is to fundamentally change the way communities approach the planning process, trying to create a robust public process at the outset and then treat zoning and subdivision review as an administrative process after the community has identified appropriate growth densities, types, and locations. MEIC supported the bill when it was first introduced; however, as the bill wove its way through legislative committees, counties were exempted. This meant that the bill no longer applied to those areas most subject to sprawl and that would most benefit from increased planning. This and other problematic sections regarding public notice and participation during the subdivision review phases raised serious concerns. Despite attempts to amend it, the bill passed, and select cities will have up to five years to comply, so there will be time and, hopefully, room for improvement.
Paving the Way for Housing
“Affordable housing” was the most common reason cited by those supporting pro-development bills. If a bill could be loosely tied to affordable housing, it was a free-for-all. In the end, the number of bills passed that will directly or indirectly reduce the cost to homeowners or renters was woefully disappointing, with most of the remaining ideas piled into HB 819 (Rep. Paul Green, R-Hardin) like an overloaded wagon as everyone scrambled to leave town in the last few moments of the session. While some of the individual pieces that were strapped onto HB 819 may be helpful to increase the supply of housing, few of the original affordability provisions were included in the final bill.
HB 825 (Rep. Mike Hopkins, R-Missoula), the Montana Home Ownership Means Economic Security (HOMES) bill, was a failed attempt by the Governor to provide $200 million in targeted infrastructure investments. Eventually, HB 819 was amended to incorporate $107 million for infrastructure and a minimum density requirement of 10 units per acre. HB 819 also made $56 million dollars available through newly established Community Reinvestment Organizations as revolving loans for down payment assistance on deed-restricted properties for low-to-moderate income households. Finally, there was a bipartisan effort that added $50 million into the Coal Trust Multi-family Homes Program to support affordable housing projects.
There were a number of bills introduced to provide loans, tax rebates, or credits to support existing and new housing developments. Many of these had affordability criteria, either in terms of income or property tax rebates for owners to rent at below market rates; however, none of these bills made it across the finish line. There were a couple of unsuccessful attempts at workforce housing incentives or expanding the elderly homeowner tax credits; these bills would have been helpful, but unfortunately nothing was passed that would have invested some of the budget surplus to community organizations working to build and maintain long term affordable homes. Economically stable and successful communities need a range of housing options to accommodate a suite of needs.
Hopefully, the interim will provide more opportunities to examine the causes of Montana’s housing challenges rather than a scattershot approach to developing solutions to a multi-symptomatic problem. Montana needs more homes in environmentally appropriate areas with adequate infrastructure and in a moderate price range. Effective solutions will require a multifaceted approach rather than just “cutting red tape,” enacting zoning reform, and weakening subdivision review requirements.
This article was published in the June 2023 issue of Down To Earth.