Dumping local zoning codes won’t solve the housing crisis
Now that Montana has finally realized it has a serious housing problem, “housing experts” have come out of the woodwork to tell us all how to fix it. And predictably, when there is a problem to solve, some of these “experts” try to exploit the problem by using it to advance their political agenda.
The March 5 edition of the Daily Inter Lake included an article from the Montana Free Press that described a “study” by the Frontier Institute that if more multi-family housing were built in Montana, the result would be greater housing supply. . for those with low and middle incomes.
This statement is probably true as far as it goes. However, it would be reasonable to expect a study of what is preventing the construction of more multifamily housing in Montana cities to examine all the factors that affect the production of multifamily housing; factors such as financing, cost of construction materials, land costs, supply chain issues, labor shortages, transportation and other infrastructure requirements, and return on investment. The “study” makes no mention of how to keep any additional housing affordable for the local workforce in perpetuity.
Yet even with little to no discussion of these factors, let alone meaningful analysis, this “study” identifies its villain and its name is zoning.
To be fair, the Frontier Institute, which the article describes as a “Republican-aligned Montana think tank,” doesn’t use the term “study” to describe its report titled The Montana Zoning Atlas. And that’s a good thing because it wouldn’t pass for an unbiased or unbiased study.
On the one hand, the report uses loaded terms that are specifically intended to evoke an emotional response from the reader. To describe the single-family zoning districts, which each community has, the report refers to them as “exclusive single-family districts.” In professional community planning and zoning administration, “exclusionary zoning” is a term used to describe comprehensive zoning code or sets of codes and policies that implicitly or explicitly seek to prevent people of certain races, ethnicities, or income levels to buy homes in certain neighborhoods or, in some cases, keep them out of the community entirely. This practice, where it existed, began to be struck down by the courts in the 1950s and 1960s, and is not part of ethical planning practice today.
Even if the phrase were used to describe areas where only single-family homes are permitted, that too would be inaccurate. For example, in addition to single-family homes, Whitefish’s WR-1 single-family zone allows home occupancies, manufactured home subdivisions, and child care centers for up to 15 children. With a conditional use permit, it authorizes accessory residential units, bed and breakfasts, churches, large day care centres, “groups or clusters of dwellings”, and certain types of “community residential establishments”, such as group homes for people with developmental disabilities. It is hardly a neighborhood of family exclusion by definition.
Another biased and loaded term is the use of the word “penalized” to describe when anything other than a single family home is permitted in any zoning district through a conditional use permit. This permit is extremely common in zoning codes and almost every zone contains both a list of permitted (entitlement) and conditional uses. Some conditional uses are authorized through an administrative UPC, which does not even require a public hearing.
The very idea of a conditional use is that under certain conditions, a use which would not otherwise be permitted in a particular area may prove to be compatible and complementary to the uses permitted by law. Therefore, the CUP process is actually a bonus and not a penalty at all.
The same applies to planned unit developments. In most zoning codes, a PUD gives the applicant the ability to establish a land use that would not normally be permitted in a particular area. For example, multi-family developments are often permitted in single-family areas through a PUD. Additionally, PUDs often have density bonuses associated with them, as well as recoil, height, and other variances to better leverage any density bonus. So PUDs, like CUPs, are a developer bonus, not a penalty.
The Montana Zoning Atlas authors included a set of interactive maps that they say show how some communities are excluding multi-family housing. They titled the maps “How Regulations Exclude” and offer the following statement: “Whitefish is a great 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 fact, in the case of Whitefish, the interactive maps don’t even match the city zoning maps that are readily available online. Also, it is difficult to compare maps because interactive maps do not display street names.
The Frontier Institute report also contains a statement that “exclusive single-family zoning can either prohibit multi-family homes outright or penalize multi-family dwellings by conditioning approval on public hearings, special requirements or to a lengthy and costly discretionary permit process”.
This too is loaded language, mainly because the public hearing (at least one for a PUD or CUP), the “special requirements” (conditions of approval), and the discretionary permit process are all part of an application. and a PUD examination or CUP procedure and are not separate steps in most codes.
Although the authors of the study identified public hearings as part of the “penalty” for multifamily housing, they actually serve a legitimate public purpose. Open public hearings before the planning board or governing body allow residents of the surrounding neighborhood to participate in government decision-making. It also grants them the right to lawful assembly and freedom of speech, all provided for in the First Amendment to the Constitution. Public hearings also provide for the right to due process guaranteed by the Fifth and 14th Amendments. I suspect the writers are at least somewhat familiar with the Constitution, but they don’t seem to have linked its provisions and principles to local land use decisions.
As part of their analysis, the authors examined the lands of the communities of Whitefish, Bozeman, Missoula, Kalispell and Helena. However, they only considered land zoned residential and therefore overlooked the fact that a significant number of multi-family units are developed in commercial zones.
For example, Missoula’s code allows multi-family buildings as of right in its six commercial zones, neighborhood business through to the central business district.
Whitefish allows multi-family buildings in its WB-2 Secondary Commercial Zone and currently has hundreds of multi-family units in this south side zoning district of the city. Additionally, many more can be found in the WR-1 single family district, having been PUD approved. In the Frontier Institute report, WR-1 is labeled “exclusive single-family zoning.” These are actual, real-world units (a few are still under construction), but because they were developed on land other than residential, the mere mention of them apparently didn’t meet the purpose or purpose. message from the Frontier Institute.
Again, the article describes the Frontier Institute as aligned with the Republicans. This is evident when you visit their website and see that much of their material, especially on housing and regulation, is written by Republican lawmakers in Montana. The Institute is a 501.c.(3) that does not disclose its financial supporters, and that alone may be all we need to know about them.
However, Montana needs more housing, and construction has not kept pace with demand. But gutting our local zoning codes in hopes of producing more market-rate multifamily units that still won’t be affordable to local labor won’t solve the housing problems currently facing communities across the country. Montana.
Robert Horne, Jr. (Bob) has been a resident of Whitefish for 17 years. He holds a graduate degree in city and regional planning and has practiced community planning for over 40 years in six states, but primarily in Montana. He is now retired and serves as a volunteer on the Town of Whitefish’s Strategic Workforce Housing Plan Committee.