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More multi-family units will ease Montana housing crisis

| March 6, 2022 12:00 AM

It’s no secret that the Flathead Valley has faced a lack of affordable and workforce housing for years. But it’s a problem that has become more acute 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 during that same time.

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 are spending up to 50% of their household income on housing, while the industry standard for affordable housing is 30% or less.

In addition, the chamber pointed out that from 2019 to 2021, Kalispell’s median property value shot up from $233,500 to $550,000.

There’s a complex web of solutions that have been set out for solving the housing crisis, but one simple solution comes forward time and time again — build more housing.

Now, a new study has put a finer point on the issue, saying a specific type of housing could actually help to address the issue.

The think-tank Frontier Institute has released a report titled the Montana Zoning Atlas that maps zoning designations in six Montana cities including Kalispell and Whitefish. It analyzes how the state’s most in-demand communities treat affordable types of housing and what kind of houses can be built where.

It found that over 70% of primary residential areas in the communities either outright prohibit or penalize affordable multi-family housing development. The study says reform is needed to make it easier to construct duplex, triplex and fourplex-style homes in urban neighborhoods.

The report says cities should rewrite zoning codes to accommodate medium-density housing in areas currently reserved for single-family homes.

Advocates argue that because multi-family housing uses land and building materials more efficiently than single-family homes, it can present an opportunity for more affordable housing.

We challenge city and county officials to take a hard look at the study to see what can be done locally to encourage the medium-density housing that would produce the homes we need for the families who want to live here. Then work to rewrite zoning codes, as necessary, to make it easier for denser housing to be developed.

But don’t stop there. When it comes time to vote on those projects, local officials should approve them knowing that they will add valuable housing to the community, even if that means taking the uncomfortable position that may place them out of favor with some of their neighbors.

Time and time again we’ve watched as projects have come forward that could provide necessary housing, but neighborhoods say those projects will destroy their neighborhood.

Change can be difficult, and when it comes to your neighborhood sometimes it’s harder to embrace. But it’s time to think about neighborhoods that include single-family homes alongside duplexes, thus creating desperately needed housing.

As one former Whitefish city councilor recently put it, protecting the integrity of neighborhoods has come at the cost of protecting the integrity of the whole community.

The Frontier Institute study calls on the Montana Legislature to pass bills forcing local governments to ease their development standards. This is where we disagree, believing that local control is the best option because communities know what’s best for themselves.

However, that doesn’t mean the Legislature can’t be supportive of those local governments' efforts, even if that means staying out of their way.

Last session the Legislature passed a bill limiting Montana’s cities ability to mandate affordable housing for new homes, effectively ending housing programs in Whitefish and Bozeman.

Once communities have put in the work to find solutions to the housing crunch themselves, the Legislature needs to let that happen rather than meddling from Helena.

We all know someone or have a friend of a friend who was forced to move outside the Flathead Valley because they simply could no longer afford to live here. Soon it will be the children who grew up here but can no longer afford to live in the place they were raised.

Let’s plan for the future by making housing a priority so our children and grandchildren, friends and neighbors, have a place to call home in the state we all love.