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Viewpoint: Gutting zoning is not the answer to Montana’s housing crisis

Robert Horne Jr. and his dog, Grady

Now that Montana has finally realized it has a serious housing problem, “housing experts” have come out of the woodwork to tell us how to solve it. Predictably, when there’s a problem to be solved, some of these “experts” attempt to exploit the problem by using it to advance their political agenda.

The Frontier Institute, which Montana Free Press describes as a “Republican-aligned Montana think tank,” recently released a report that claims if more multi-family housing were built, the result would be a greater supply of affordable housing for low and middle income families.

Naturally, we would expect such a report to examine ALL of the relevant factors in producing multi-family housing, such as financing, the cost of building materials, land costs, supply chain issues, labor shortages, transportation and other infrastructure needs, and return on investment. However, this report makes no mention of these factors and simply identifies the “villain:” ZONING!

First of all, this report, “The Montana Zoning Atlas,” uses a number of loaded terms — terms specifically intended to produce an emotional response on the part of the reader. It uses the term “Exclusionary Single-Family” districts to describe single-family zoning districts, which every community has.

In professional planning, “exclusionary zoning” is a term used to describe policies intended to keep people of certain races, ethnicities, or income levels out of particular communities. Courts began to strike down this practice in the 1950s, and it is not an ethical or acceptable planning practice today. Even if the phrase were used to describe areas where ONLY single-family homes are allowed, that too would be inaccurate.

For example, in addition to single-family homes, Whitefish’s WR-1 single-family zone allows home occupations, manufactured home subdivisions, and daycare facilities for up to 15 children. With a conditional use permit, it allows many other uses, including accessory residential units, bed & breakfasts, churches, and more. That is hardly “exclusionary.”

Authors of The Montana Zoning Atlas have included a set of interactive maps that they claim demonstrates how certain communities exclude multi-family housing. Titled “How Regulations Exclude,” they offer the statement with the maps, “Whitefish is a prime example of how Exclusionary Single-Family Zoning practices and Minimum Lot Area Requirements stifle affordable multi-family housing development.”

However, this is not confirmed by any comprehensive or even meaningful analysis in any of the cities that the report examines. 

While the study’s authors have identified “public hearings” as a “penalty” in the multi-family housing process, they serve a legitimate purpose. Public hearings allow neighboring residents to participate in the governmental decision-making process. It also allows them the right to lawful assembly and freedom of speech, all provided in the First Amendment.

Public hearings also provide the right to procedural due process guaranteed by the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. Obviously, the authors haven’t recognized that the development review process is based upon principles established in the U.S. Constitution.

In conducting their analysis, the authors examined land in Whitefish, Bozeman, Missoula, Kalispell, and Helena. However, they only considered land zoned “residential” and therefore overlooked the fact that significant numbers of multi-family units are developed in commercial zones.

For example, Missoula’s code allows multi-family buildings in all six of their commercial zones. Whitefish allows multi-family buildings in their WB-2 Secondary Business zone and currently has HUNDREDS of multi-family units in the WB-2 on the city’s south side. Many more can be found in the WR-1 Single-Family district, having been approved through the planned unit development process, all of which escaped mention by the Frontier Institute.

When you visit the Frontier Institute’s website, it’s clear that much of their material, especially about housing and regulations, is partisan. However, Montana does need additional housing, and construction has not kept pace with demand. But simply gutting our local zoning codes, and jeopardizing the scale and character or our communities that make them special to us, in hopes of producing additional, and probably still unaffordable multi-family units, will not solve Montana’s housing problems.

Robert Horne, Jr. (Bob) is a 17-year resident of Whitefish. He holds a graduate degree in urban & regional planning and has practiced community planning for over 40 years in six states, but mostly in Montana.