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Punitive measures hold back needed housing

by Rick Breckenridge
| January 29, 2022 12:00 AM

The “bold housing” initiative proposed by the Daily Inter Lake editorial board (Jan. 23) is a welcomed, albeit late, alarm bell that needs a few term definitions before it can proceed.

First off, affordable housing is not the issue. It is housing affordability.

Affordable housing are specific units built for or subsidized to be affordable. A case in point is the Tiebucker’s subdivision in Somers where I did the subdivision for the Northwest Montana Human Resources. This subdivision created 60 lots that were all owner-built homes in coordination with Habitat for Humanity.

Housing affordability, on the other hand, is a measure of the affordability of all the housing in a specific region. This would be within the city limits of the three municipalities jurisdictions or communities within the county. Housing is considered unaffordable if a family spends more than 30% of their incomes on it. This also includes insurance, taxes, and other costs in addition to the mortgage.

The planning penalty when doing a subdivision within a municipal jurisdiction is over $65,000 for each lot. Subdivision applications with upfront engineering plans and review fees, paved roads, sidewalks, sewer and water mains along with the impact fees charged by these jurisdictions lay the foundation for $100,000 for 10,000-square-foot city lots.

The Montana Department of Environmental Quality is the other impediment to housing affordability outside the municipal jurisdictions. DEQ has 78 different laws, rules and subjective regulations that must be complied with before you can flush a toilet. Twenty five years ago I could submit a complete DEQ environmental application for $500 a lot including the DEQ fees. Today, that same application will be upwards of $7,500 per parcel.

In the 2021 Legislature, Jeff Larsen and I submitted through Sen. Carl Glimm, two senate bills that would have eased some of the regulatory burdens imposed by the bureaucracies at the state and local levels. SB 164 and SB 165 would have curbed DEQ’s regulatory powers. They both passed the Senate on 30-20 votes. Both got out of the House committees but were opposed by Rep. Brian Putnam who helped kill SB 164 on the House floor.

SB 165 went to Gov. Greg Gianforte and he promptly vetoed the bill. These two bills attempted to curtail 30 years of encroaching liberal policy wars on private property. Both were killed by Republicans, MACO and DEQ lobbyists.

The takeaways from my 37 years of surveying in Montana is that zoning, subdivision reviews and impact fees are adopted as punitive measures and that no jurisdiction is willing to admit their part in the creation of this crisis highlighted in the editorial.

DEQ is proud of the fact that not one submittal for review is ever approved on a first-time submission. The Bigfork Land Use Advisory Committee never fails to deny a proposal. Evergreen Water and Sewer specifies control systems that don’t exist.

The harsh reality of these policies is that 100 people now have no place to go.

Rick Breckenridge lives in Kalispell.

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