Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) With mixed opinions, the Missoula City Council on Monday voted to override the city's opposing stance on a housing bill that would permit duplexes by right in all single-family neighborhoods, even if those neighborhoods objected.

With little public feedback and despite warnings from city housing officials that the measure could slow the pace of housing construction, six members voted to shift the city's position on Senate Bill 323 from opposed to neutral.

Council member Daniel Carlino favored the change, suggesting that single-family housing represented “classist, racist zoning.”

“Zoning neighborhoods for only single-family homes has a long history of dividing people on class, and pushing people who can't afford a single-family home out of those neighborhoods,” Carlino said.

SB 323 currently has bipartisan support, including the backing of Missoula's legislative delegation. But a separate bill also has broad support and would allow cities to select tools from a menu of housing options that work best for them.

That bill – Senate Bill 382 – is supported by the city, along with planning offices across the state and the Montana League of Cities and Towns. While SB 323 forces a one-size-fits-all approach, SB 382 would give cities options while allowing for public input.

“SB 323 would have no public process while SB 382 would allow communities to make their own decisions to address their housing needs,” said Eran Pehan, the city's director of development. “We'd prefer to funnel our support toward a bill (382) that honors local control and make decisions from a suite of progressive land-use options that make the most sense for our community in Missoula.”

Others agreed, saying the tools provided in SB 382 would allow the public to consider policies that work best for a particular community. In contrast, SB 323 would allow no such participation.

Council member Heidi West opposed a neutral stance on SB 323 and instead favored SB 382.

“Our residents deserve involvement in our policy decisions and shaping their own neighborhoods,” said West. “While it's not always fast enough for everyone, I feel like there's integrity in that process by giving people a voice.”

Council member Stacie Anderson agreed.

“I think there's good intent behind SB 323, but I don't like the fact that it mandates for everywhere,” Anderson said. “It absolutely takes away any local control, any local process and any local participation. SB 323 doesn't allow communities to intentionally grow, expand and infill like SB 382 does.”

The city is currently undergoing a process to reform its codes and building regulations, and that will involve public input and decisions based upon need, population projections and economic circumstances. Supporters of SB 382 said it would cater to that effort by giving cities choices.

But some contend that the process will take too long and left to its own devices, the city could squander a tool intended to expedite housing construction.

Council member Mike Nugent, who supported a neutral stance on SB 323, cited the Townhome Exemption Development as an example. The tool was created by the Legislature several sessions ago to expedite housing construction, but the Missoula City Council placed a number of conditions upon it, basically rendering it useless.

“I don't blame the Legislature for questioning whether cities will meet the moment and do the right thing,” Nugent said. “I want to do code reform right and I understand it takes a long time. But there's a frustration that we aren't doing anything to help right now. It's still very hard for working Missoulians who don't qualify for any subsidies to find housing in Missoula.”

Regardless of what legislation the city supports or opposes, it has little say in the ultimate outcome of any particular bill. While members of the council weren't united on what housing legislation to back, they all voiced some level of frustration with the current state of housing in Missoula.

“My neighborhood is feeling the pressures of growth every single day, in every single way, and we're not getting the infrastructure we need to support that growth,” said council member Jennifer Savage. “When I see neighborhoods like the North Side taking on the burden of our housing crisis, it deeply frustrates me.”