Jonathon Ambarian

HELENA (KPAX) - Gov. Greg Gianforte’s housing task force launched back in July.

Now, after five months and dozens of meetings, they’ve wrapped up their work — releasing a second set of recommendations for addressing Montana’s housing shortage.

Chris Dorrington, director of the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and chair of the task force, said he was pleased with the entire process.

“I don’t think it could have been much better, from the variable stakeholders and the bipartisan interest,” he said. “I couldn’t be more proud of what we accomplished.”

The task force put out its Phase II report last week. At their final meeting Monday afternoon, Gianforte praised their work.

“I was very impressed,” he said. “You came up with some very innovative ideas – I think many of them we’re going to be able to act on.”

The task force’s first report, released in October, focused on proposals that the state Legislature could approve and the governor could sign into law. The second report lays out suggestions for regulatory changes that state agencies and local governments can make, generally without changing state law.

The 18 new recommendations are part of three overall strategies: addressing regulators’ efficiency and capacity, gathering updated information and investing resources to support construction and the workforce.

Some of the goals include “streamlining” the permit process for new housing developments, identifying ways to reduce or share the costs of construction and helping local governments implement new zoning and regulatory practices.

DEQ, which is responsible for subdivision permitting, is one of the main agencies the task force urged to improve its efficiency.

Dorrington said his department has already worked on bringing in and retaining staff, using technology better and improving their processes, and he believes they can still do more.

“What I don't want people to forget is our job is also to protect Montana's resources,” he said. “So it's not just about doing fast permitting, it's about doing sound, environmental permitting, on time and defensibly.”

The Montana Legislature is busy preparing for its 2023 session — starting in two weeks — where housing will be a huge topic. Dorrington said about 200 bill drafts on housing have already surfaced.

Some of the proposed bills are likely to include recommendations from the task force’s first report. Rep. Danny Tenenbaum, D-Missoula, a task force member, said lawmakers from both parties are interested in carrying those bills.

“I really hope this is an issue where we can rise above our partisan divisions and work to end this housing shortage,” he said.

One major idea is included in Gianforte’s budget proposal: using $200 million to support water and sewer infrastructure for new housing developments — and tying that funding to local governments encouraging more housing density.

“The use and utility of that to incentivize higher-density housing development is going to be powerful,” Dorrington said.

While the task force is finishing its work, leaders stress that this isn’t the last opportunity for people to have their say on these ideas.

“As you move into the lawmaking process, the public is encouraged to share their voice – lean in, share wisdom and really guide the solutions that come into that legislative process,” said Dorrington.