Nichole Girten/Daily Montanan

Thirty year-old Mallory Phillips got choked up as she told Gov. Greg Gianforte’s newly assembled Housing Task Force about remembering a time Whitefish was populated with people of all economic backgrounds.

“I’m hoping that whatever comes from this task force, that you all do not forget the very human element of the housing crisis,” said Phillips, a co-founder of Shelter WF who was speaking as a private citizen and fifth-generation Whitefish resident.

Phillips, who is in a relationship with task force member Nathan Dugan, president and co-founder of Shelter WF, said after the meeting they were “barely able to squeak in this market” when returning to Whitefish after living in Idaho. She said friends were priced out to neighboring Columbia Falls and Kalispell, and even then “just by the skin of their teeth.”

The Housing Task Force met Wednesday for the first time at the state capitol since the Governor’s Office announced its formation last week. Gianforte requested those appointed, a bipartisan group from legislators to contractors to housing advocates, to provide recommendations for strategies to increase the supply of affordable workforce housing.

“We want to have an actionable result, specific things you can actually do, either a rule or a statute or in public private partnerships across the board,” Gianforte said Wednesday. “There is no single bullet we’re going to shoot and solve this problem. The problem is very serious, affects all of our communities, and it is multifaceted.”

From 2010 to 2020, Montana’s population grew by 9.6 percent, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Housing in Montana has not been able to keep up.

Policies the governor wants the task force to examine, as outlined in his executive order, include land use regulations and zoning restrictions “that inhibit increasing housing supply to meet demand.”

The executive order asks the task force to specifically focus on regulatory changes state agencies and local governments could make, as well as action the Montana Legislature could take, towards increasing housing supply.

“Government should not stand in the way of Montanans achieving this American Dream. Unfortunately, there are ill-advised federal, state and local policies that create unnecessary roadblocks to homeownership,” Gianforte said. “Let’s help more folks achieve the American dream. That’s the goal of this task force.”

Montana Democrats have criticized the inclusion in the task force of Montana GOP Majority Leader Sue Vinton, R-Billings, who sponsored HB 259. Signed into law by the governor, the legislation prohibits local government from establishing inclusionary zoning, which requires a portion of qualifying new housing be sold or rented at a certain price, such as specified income levels or at specified sale prices.

Proponents of inclusionary zoning believe it helps add to the affordable housing stock, but opponents argue it constrains supply and drives up prices.

“Solving Montana’s housing crisis should absolutely be one of the Administration’s top priorities,” said Sheila Hogan, executive director of the Montana Democratic Party, in a Friday press release. “But the fact that Gianforte tapped Sue Vinton to help lead efforts is troubling. She has a well known track record of stripping away local authority on housing reform. Montanans deserve problem solvers at the table.”

Vinton was not immediately available for comment on the telephone. Vinton’s family owns a construction company, and during the 2021 legislative session, she argued inclusionary zoning pushed up prices and did not meaningfully add to the stock of affordable housing.

During the meeting, Director of the Department of Environmental Quality and Task Force Chair Chris Dorrington helped divide the task force into four subgroups that would focus on: construction; “local footprint” later explained to encompass the impact to local communities; regulatory, which will examine regulations related to housing; and the “catch all” economy subgroup.

Todd O’Hair, president and CEO of the Montana Chamber of Commerce, was appointed co-chair.

“There’s only one problem in this whole process,” said Patrick Barkey, director of the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Montana. “You’re trying to solve it in a month, but we haven’t been able to solve it in 20 years.”

During public comment, at least two people mentioned they wanted to see the task force discuss accessibility and fold in the concerns of disabled and elderly population in Montana.

Shyla Patera of North Central Independent Living Services, Inc., in Great Falls said she doesn’t want to see disability housing isolated from community spaces, but within walking distance to services, restaurants and shopping.

Executive Director for Montana Association of Centers for Independent Living Joel Peden said he was disappointed that there was no voice for the disability community on the task force.

“I think that is a big vacancy,” he said.

The task force has an Oct. 15 deadline for its first report to the governor and is meeting again in early August to discuss issues related to housing challenges in Montana.

“I think you probably see that statewide right now where people are just not engaging in their community, in part because they don’t have a reason to invest if they don’t think they’re going to be there forever,” Phillips said.