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Column: Montana has been discovered

by Greg Hertz
| February 23, 2022 12:00 AM

Montana has been discovered. We were the second-fastest-growing state in the country last year. Our rapidly increasing population presents many challenges and opportunities, and it’s also driving a lot of unease among many of us who’ve lived here for a long time.

Whether you love it or hate it, that growth looks like it’s going to keep happening for a while. We need to deal with that reality and reform many policies very quickly to respond to it, especially when it comes to housing.

Buying or renting a place to live is becoming more expensive and more difficult with each passing month. Even rural parts of the state that didn’t experience explosive growth like Bozeman and the Flathead over the past decade are now feeling its impacts in their communities. Over the past year, median home prices increased more than 20% in Missoula, more than 40% in Whitefish, more than 10% in Butte and more than 25% in Bozeman. Homelessness in Montana increased by 16% in 2021.

Housing will not get more affordable or more accessible until the root cause of the problem is addressed: supply. Between 2010 and 2020, Montana’s population grew by 10%, but our state only added 7% more housing units during that same time span. In 2021, our population most likely grew at an even faster pace. Many areas in Montana need hundreds if not thousands of more homes. It is impossible for anyone or any entity to put a dent in Montana’s housing crisis without building more places for people to live.

Many Montanans have a built-in resistance to more development. We value the open space, scenic views, and the natural beauty of the Last Best Place. But the migration to Montana is not stopping anytime soon. Without more housing supply, prices will only continue to increase as people with the money to afford those prices move here. High-income individuals will squeeze out the middle class. The upper middle class will buy what homes remain, and the lower middle class, working class, and low-income folks will struggle to find any place to live within their means. Most locals and long-time Montanans don’t have the financial resources to compete with this inferno of a housing market, meaning many of those who’ve been here the longest will be priced out.

The one and only way living in Big Sky Country can be affordable for average Montanans going forward is if we build more housing. That necessary development does not have to ruin the character of our beautiful state, especially if local governments get outdated and needless regulations out of the way.

The biggest barriers to building more housing are restrictive zoning regulations. Some local governments are starting to wake up to this fact, but they all need to move faster and more aggressively. We need to build more housing units on a single lot such as duplexes, triplexes, and accessory dwelling units (ADUs).

At the Legislature, we hear about Montana’s housing crisis every day. We’re listening, and we’re watching what is happening at the local level throughout the state. This is one of the biggest issues facing our state, and the solutions need to be implemented.

Legislators are working with local government representatives and other stakeholders, however, immediate changes must start at the local level now.

Greg Hertz is a Republican state senator from Polson. This column was originally published as part of the Frontier Institute’s “Legislative Viewpoint” series.

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