Tuesday, December 05, 2023

Senator Ellsworth is wrong about Whitefish

by Robert Horne, Jr.
| September 28, 2023 12:00 AM

Since the 2023 Montana Legislative Session ended this past spring, the Daily Inter Lake and other papers around the state have been bombarded with op-eds from right-wing legislators bragging about how all of the draconian laws they passed during the last session are having positive impacts around the state.

However, most of those “positive impacts” are wildly exaggerated by the authors, who also fail to mention that many of the laws they championed in both the 2021 and 2023 sessions are still tied up in court.

Then again, some of those “positive impacts” are totally fabricated. In an op-ed that appeared in the Daily Inter Lake on Sept. 20, Republican Sen. Jason Ellsworth claimed that:

“Cities are updating their zoning codes to be more friendly toward building affordable starter homes, with some, like Whitefish, explicitly saying they wouldn’t have done so without a mandate from the Legislature.”

Now in my opinion, this statement is a bold-faced lie on many levels, but I will stick to the comment that Sen. Ellsworth made about Whitefish.

The truth is that Whitefish has long known that it had an affordable housing problem, and has been working on that problem far longer than any right-wing legislators were even thinking about it.

I was the planning director in Whitefish from 2005 to 2007, and even then the city had a Planned Unit Development option in its zoning code that allowed developers to deviate from certain standards and receive a density bonus in return for permanently affordable housing.

That option didn’t produce any significant number of units, so following an updated housing needs assessment, the city adopted an “inclusionary zoning” ordinance. Inclusionary zoning typically produces permanently affordable housing for essential community workers such as teachers, police officers, nurses, med techs, etc., and Whitefish’s ordinance was doing just that — until Republican legislators, including Sen. Ellsworth, snatched this effective and proven tool away from local governments during the 2021 session.

Just to be sure that I wasn’t the only one who found Sen. Ellsworth’s statement outrageous, I contacted a Whitefish city official who responded:

That statement is untrue. Not sure where he got that. We've been working on encouraging and even requiring affordable housing for decades through density bonuses for PUDs with 10% deed restricted housing, our Legacy Homes Program which required 20% deed restricted housing, and our revised Legacy Homes Program which gives multiple incentives for 10% deed restricted housing.

Sen. Ellsworth’s faux pas notwithstanding, Whitefish continues its efforts to provide more affordable and workforce housing today, taking action and implementing housing programs faster than the Montana Legislature can take them away.

Robert Horne, Jr. is a former Whitefish planning director.

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