The Atlantic recently published a great piece entitled, “The Anti-California, How Montana performed a housing miracle.” The author details all the problems Montana was having with housing affordability, resulting from strict and costly regulations and existing homeowners who rise up to oppose any new development. This will be familair to anyone who has worked on municipal housing issues. The “miracle’ the title alludes to is how swiftly the state legislature acted to overcome those hurdles.
Faced with high housing costs due to restricted supply and the NIMBY opposition that popped this up, the article focused on how state leaders acted.
Last July, [Governor] Gianforte created a housing task force, bringing together homebuilders, politicians, experts, and advocates, including Dugan, who had gone on to found a housing nonprofit called Shelter WF. In October, the group delivered a series of proposals to state officials; in December, to local officials. Montana’s legislature debated a set of bills based on those recommendations. Then it passed them this spring. The state transformed its land-use policies. It set itself up for dense development. It did this on a bipartisan basis and at warp speed.
The article then gives a history of recent population growth in Montana and the obstacles that stymied construction to meet demand. The legislature then acted to allow people to build housing by right instead of enduring time consuming and therefore expensive processes, allow infill development in already dense areas, and limit the ability of municipalities to gum up the works with their own zoning policies. The author observes, “Montana now arguably has the most pro-development, pro-housing set of policies of any state.”
What spurred policymakers to act so quickly, according to the story, was fear of becoming California with its high housing costs, sprawl-inducing zoning regulations and the knock-on effects. The piece quotes Daryl Fairweather, the chief economist at Redfin Corporation, a Seattle-based provider of residential real estate brokerage and mortgage origination services with observing, “If you have single-family zoning and bury your head, you will eventually face San Francisco’s problems. It’s not just the high cost of housing. It’s a high cost of living, wealth inequality, homelessness, and crime.”
While Montana’s success is impressive, local leaders do not need to wait on state leaders to solve their problems for them–and risk pre-emption laws that may hamper their ability to meet important community standards. Better Cities has published several reports on how to reform housing policy. Among them are:
- The Housing and Zoning section of our post-pandemic Getting Back To Work published in 2020;
- Zoning and Permitting reforms that unlocked a development boom in New Rochelle, New York published in 2021; and
- Incremental Zoning reforms adopted in Auburn, Maine to address a housing scarcity published in 2022.
BCP is here to help local leaders identify and address their own housing issues in a way that preserves local authority. While legislative action in Montana and elsewhere is welcome, local leaders need not forfeit their ability to find their own way.