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Governor's housing task force reviewing recommendations to spur home construction

by NICOLE GIRTEN Daily Montanan
| May 11, 2024 12:00 AM

Gov. Greg Gianforte’s Housing Task Force on Thursday discussed draft recommendations to encourage more supply and density of housing.

The task force had a combined list of 31 recommendations – which include everything from fast-tracking permitting to infusing cash in existing housing funds – that the task force is looking to consolidate where possible for the final report, due to the governor in July.

Montana is in a housing crisis as people struggle to find affordable homes with the cost of buying and renting on the rise. This task force hopes with more of a “carrot” than a “stick” approach, it will recommend policies to encourage development and increase access to affordable housing.

Gianforte first formed the Housing Task Force in 2022 to provide recommendations to make housing in the state “more affordable and attainable.” These recommendations were used during the 2023 legislature to create legislation like the Montana Land Use Planning Act – which front-loads public participation and requires Montana’s biggest urban centers to create a new planning board and map.

Several of the affordable housing bills passed last session are temporarily on hold as part of a lawsuit with the attorney for plaintiffs saying these bills are a “gift to developers.”

After the last legislative session the governor announced the continuation of the task force, saying there was still work to be done on housing.

One of the recommendations discussed Thursday included creating a self-certification program to speed permit approvals. This would mean after professionals pass a government-sponsored certification program, along with random audits to ensure compliance, they can bypass lengthy permitting processes for eligible projects to get permits approved in a few days and fast-track construction projects in the state.

Kendall Cotton, president and CEO of the Frontier Institute, a conservative-leaning Montana based think-tank, made the suggestion with the rationale that it would reduce the administrative burden for local governments who are familiar with these professionals. He cited Phoenix as a model community that has already implemented this program and he says has seen a faster turnaround for permitting.

Emily Hamilton with George Mason University’s Urbanity Project recommended localities add more zoning for new mobile and manufactured home parks, saying it’s a way to promote affordable housing options in the state. She said zoning restrictions are still a barrier to manufactured housing as a source of low-cost housing.

“Because developing manufactured housing parks generally does not require subdividing parcels, new manufactured housing parks should not be required to go through subdivision review,” Hamilton said in her submission.

Another recommendation was for municipalities to reduce or eliminate parking requirements for new construction, with former Bozeman Planning Board member Mark Egge saying it’s one of the most likely the most cited and evidence-based ways to support the creation of affordable housing.

Parking spaces cost about $5,000 each, and many Montana cities require two-bedroom units have at least two parking spaces, even though the majority of renter households have one or no cars, Egge said in his rationale.

“Planning rules that require renters and businesses to pay for more parking than they want or need drive up costs for everyone,” Egge said in the report.

Some recommendations focused on more funding for pro-housing measures already on the books.

Great Falls City Commissioner Joe McKenney’s recommendation was for the legislature to allocate money to the Housing Montana Fund and the Affordable Housing Revolving Loan Fund run by the Montana Board of Housing. He said he co-sponsored the bill to create the revolving loan fund when he was a legislator in 1999.

“My surprise being on this task force – I have found that it’s never been properly funded,” McKenney said.

He said it was a good idea because they didn’t need to pass legislation, but he said the legislation could be adjusted to reduce the matching fund requirement, which he said could go up to 50%, to make the funds more accessible.

Real estate developer Don Sterhan also wanted to put funding into existing projects, recommending allocating $50 million from the state’s coal trust to reauthorize the Coal Trust Multifamily Homes program, as well as remove the requirement that properties funded by the program must pay property taxes.

“It’s been done in the past. It’s proven to be very successful. There’s good demand for it,” Sterhan said.

Cheryl Cohen with the Montana Housing Division put forward several recommendations, including creating a working group to examine the root causes of insurance cost increases, funding more staff for her department to work with the private sector in developing affordable housing, and ongoing funding for planning grants to increase housing supply first passed last legislative session.

Other recommendations included allowing a single stairway exit in tall buildings given reductions in fire spreading in new construction as well as allowing for smaller elevators in buildings that require them, to give a more affordable option.

The task force is aiming to have its draft final report done by the first week of June. The task force has to submit its recommendations to the governor by the end of June when the group is slated to dissolve.

Nicole Girten is a reporter for the Daily Montanan, a nonprofit newsroom.