FILE - Whitefish, Montana

Aerial view of Whitefish, Montana

(The Center Square) – A new report aims to show how California-style zoning practices make it difficult to build affordable starter homes in Montana. 

The updated Montana Zoning Atlas 2.0 from the Frontier Institute also outlines a "Pro-Housing Platform" with policy solutions that local and state leaders can adopt. 

The updated atlas utilizes "a new standardized methodology" that was developed by Cornell University Professor Sara Bronin for the National Zoning Atlas project, "which aims to depict the nation’s 30,000 zoning codes in a clear, publicly accessible map," according to Frontier Institute President and CEO Kendall Cotton.

"The goal of the Montana Zoning Atlas is to provide community leaders with actionable data which clearly demonstrates how harmful zoning practices worsen the housing shortage by making it difficult to build affordable types of homes in Montana cities," Cotton told The Center Square.

Published in March 2022, the original zoning atlas accounted for just two zoning factors that impact housing affordability. It was also limited to six cities, whereas the new atlas examines over 100 different variables of zoning regulations. 

"It finds 50% of zoned land in 13 of Montana’s most in-demand counties either outright prohibits or penalizes affordable multifamily starter homes like duplexes," Cotton said.  

Montana's population grew 10% from 2010 to 2020, but the supply of housing grew only by 7%, according to Cotton. 

“Governor Greg Gianforte’s Housing Task Force noted that strict local zoning regulation outright prohibits the most affordable types of starter homes like duplexes, townhomes, and triplexes in vast portions of Montana cities,” Cotton said. “People aren’t just getting priced out of Montana cities, they are getting zoned out.”

Cory Shaw, executive director for the Montana Building Industry Association, agrees that housing supply is a problem. Shaw told The Center Square that a lack of housing is a major issue for workers relocating to the state for jobs.

"If there are homes, those that are available are extremely expensive and cost prohibitive due to supply and demand driving up prices,” Shaw said. “Land is tied up in zoning and growth plan restrictions that prevent new construction. All of these play into the detrimental impact to local businesses that a lack of housing can cause.”

The housing crisis is one of the reasons why organizations such as Shelter WF exist.

Nathan Dugan, co-founder and president of Shelter WF, said downtown businesses in Whitefish have had to limit hours due to staffing problems. Meanwhile, Dugan said it is increasingly difficult for younger people to lay down roots and build community in Whitefish. 

"The overall vibrancy of nightlife has decreased as well over the years as many younger folks have been forced out of town due to housing costs," Dugan said.

The Frontier Institute's Pro-Housing platform asks Montana leaders to step up with "bold, pro-housing reforms on a statewide scale to give Montana landowners more freedom" to build affordable homes, such as duplexes, triplexes, and fourplexes.

"These are some of the most affordable starter home options," Cotton said. "These types of homes are often referred to as the missing middle because they are outright prohibited in vast portions of America’s cities."

The platform also says local governments and state lawmakers should "prohibit excessive minimum lot areas in cities," a move that "can boost the supply of housing."

State Sen. Jeremy Trebas, R-District 13, is among lawmakers trying to push reforms. He plans to carry a proposal suggested in the governor’s housing task force report that would allow for more multi-family units to be constructed where only single-family housing is currently allowed.

“I agree with Frontier Institute’s position, especially that it prevents starter homes and encourages urban sprawl,” Trebas told The Center Square. “People are pushed to the outer parts of a city or bedroom community because costs in the city close to where they generally work is too high.”