HELENA — The availability of affordable housing is one of the major issues people in Montana have been talking about. Now, the Montana Legislature is starting to consider a series of proposals for tackling the issue.
“We’ve heard people loud and clear, that housing affordability out there is crazy – it’s insane,” said Senate President Sen. Jason Ellsworth, R-Hamilton.
Ellsworth said lawmakers have been looking at the issue from many different angles. He highlighted a variety of proposals, from Republicans’ bill to offer tax rebates to property owners to a bill revising laws on transferring property within a family.
The Legislature is also hearing a series of bills aimed at speeding up subdivision reviews:
- House Bill 211, sponsored by Rep. Larry Brewster, R-Billings, would change the rules on when authorities must hold multiple hearings on a planned subdivision.
- Senate Bill 130, sponsored by Sen. Forrest Mandeville, R-Columbus, would allow cities to consolidate planning boards, zoning commissions and boards of adjustment into a land-use board.
- Senate Bill 226, sponsored by Mandeville, would allow the Montana Department of Environmental Quality to certify independent entities to review subdivision applications.
- Senate Bill 227, sponsored by Mandeville, would allow DEQ to authorize some experienced applicants to review subdivision applications.
“The question is what can we do on the supply side – because the demand is definitely there,” Ellsworth said. "I think the one thing we can do – because we can’t effectuate the prices of lumber, you can't effectuate the prices of labor – but certainly land and the opportunity for land to be open for development.”
One bill that got a hearing Tuesday is House Bill 337, sponsored by Rep. Katie Zolnikov, R-Billings. It would prohibit cities and towns from requiring a minimum lot size of more than 2,500 square feet, if a lot has both municipal water and sewer service. It would also limit municipalities’ authority to require building setbacks and open space.
Zolnikov said during the hearing that the bill would provide more flexibility and argued it would only lead to significantly more development in the areas where there’s the most demand for housing.
“The beauty of this bill is it puts things like development into the free market,” she said.
HB 337 drew opposition from local government representatives, including the Montana League of Cities and Towns. Kelly Lynch, the League’s executive director, said municipalities are willing to be part of the discussion on how land-use changes can improve housing availability, but they don’t want a top-down mandate from the state.
“There's no flexibility whatsoever – it just says you shall do this,” she said. “Lot sizes will be the size and setbacks will be the size. No matter where you are, no matter what the issues are in your community.”
Lynch said a number of cities have recognized the seriousness of the housing issue and started making their own zoning changes. She said reducing minimum lot sizes can be part of the solution, but they’re not right for every community.
Lynch said the League is working with lawmakers on an alternate proposal. The bill text is not yet available, but she said it would likely require cities and towns to adopt several policies to support housing availability, out of a list of about 20 options.
“We’ve taken the position that we’d rather have a menu of options and then have the communities pick from that list those reforms that work best for their communities,” said Lynch.
Also up for a hearing Tuesday was Senate Bill 194, sponsored by Sen. Mary Ann Dunwell, D-Helena. It would offer landlords a tax credit if they rent a home to a long-term tenant at lower than market rate.
Dunwell said the proposal would be just one tool to address the housing issue, but potentially one that could make a big difference.
“It’s a win-win for everyone: It's win-win for renters to be able to stay in their rentals and afford their rents, and it's win-win for landlords so they can stay in business,” she said.
SB 194 would set the credit at $200 for every $100 they set rent below 110% of the federal government’s “fair market rent” for the county. In the initial fiscal breakdown of the bill, budget analysts assumed that credit would be for the entire year, but Dunwell said her intention was for the amount to be monthly – so at least $2,400 per year.
Also on Tuesday, Democratic leaders in the Legislature released details on their proposal to put $1.5 billion of the state’s budget surplus toward investment in several key priorities, including workforce housing.