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ICYMI: Getting serious about affordable housing means challenging ‘local control’

Apr 7, 2023 by AFP

BOZEMAN, MT — New in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, Americans for Prosperity-Montana Legislative Director Henry Kriegel details the urgent need for housing reform in the state.

As the legislative session nears a close, Kriegel’s op-ed calls on lawmakers to pass reforms to expand access to affordable housing statewide, protect homeowners’ rights, safeguard wild spaces and help Montanans pursue greater prosperity and opportunity.

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Getting serious about affordable housing means challenging ‘local control’

Bozeman Daily Chronicle | LINK

The Jeffersonian principle that “the government closest to the people serves the people best” is often true. But not always. Since the founding of our country there has been a tension between this maxim and the principle best summarized by Henry David Thoreau, “that government is best which governs least.”

This tension is being felt in Montana regarding housing reform. Issues like affordable housing often have spillover effects and span multiple jurisdictions. Enacting a good idea once statewide can be far more effective than enacting a hundred variations of the same idea in cities across the state.

Local governments are creatures of the state. Their power to regulate land use and development has been delegated to them by the legislature.

When local officials wield these powers in an arbitrary manner, in a way that erects barriers to affordable and attainable housing, when local zoning and regulations undermine the health, safety and welfare of the state and our communities, it’s not only appropriate but incumbent for the Legislature to act to intervene on behalf of the individual property owners.

Local control is good, and the most local control resides with the individual property owner—not with local governments.

Several measures that have already been passed by the Senate with large bipartisan majorities would add to the housing supply while protecting property rights.

Senate Bill (SB) 323 would allow owners to build up two homes per lot in cities that have a population of more than 5,000 residents. That would mean boosting the number of lower-cost starter homes on the market and driving down rents in our communities.

SB 245 would allow the construction of mid-rise apartments and mixed-use buildings in commercial districts in Montana’s larger cities. This would mean people could live closer to their jobs and to where they shop, lessening traffic and reducing urban sprawl.

Another measure, SB 379, would reduce minimum lot sizes to 4,000 square feet, helping families afford homes by removing the need to pay for land they don’t need.

Lastly, SB 528 would allow Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) on all residential lots, moving to a more permissionless process, requiring only a small one-time application fee for the license may be up to $250 for each ADU. This bill will provide naturally affordable housing to local renters, including students, supplemental income for homeowners, and opportunities to age in place for senior citizens.

If we want to be serious about providing more affordable housing, we need to make sure that housing is abundant. Each of these bills would help achieve that goal by addressing imbalances in local housing markets right now while bringing down the cost of living in Montana.

The original intent of zoning was to keep major industry away from residential areas, it was not intended to regulate the ability of homeowners to build a duplex, add a mother-in-law suite or a garage-apartment.

Some jurisdictions have already taken steps along these lines, but most haven’t. And they’re unlikely to without a gentle nudge from the state.

Why wait for the housing crisis to deepen, putting even more of our natural lands at risk of development, waiting on local reforms that are slow to come or may get derailed by small but vocal minorities of “Not in My Backyard” (NIMBY) opponents?

A fifth bill, SB 382, looks more to the future. It would require cities to engage in long-term planning and rationalize zoning regulations. It’s a good idea worthy of support, but it’s no substitute for action on bills that would drive affordability in the market right now.

We urge our lawmakers to pass these measures to expand access to affordable housing statewide, protect homeowners’ rights, limit sprawl, safeguard our state’s wild spaces and help Montanans pursue greater prosperity and opportunity. 

Henry Kriegel is the legislative director of Americans for Prosperity-Montana.