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Montana housing task force sets sights on 'actionable' solutions

by MATT BALDWIN
Daily Inter Lake | July 27, 2022 12:00 AM

Describing Montana’s housing crisis as “complicated,” Gov. Greg Gianforte welcomed his newly formed Housing Task Force to the state capitol Wednesday for its inaugural meeting.

The governor created the committee just last week through an executive order and tasked the group with providing recommendations before the end of the year, with the first deadline coming in October.

At Wednesday’s roundtable, Gianforte touted the committee members as bipartisan stakeholders with the know-how to identify the problems and offer “actionable” results.

“I’ll be candid, this is no small task,” Gianforte told the committee that includes Republican and Democrat legislators, building professionals, economic experts, and affordable housing advocates. “There is no single bullet we’re going to shoot and solve this problem. The problem is very serious, affecting all our communities, and it is multifaceted.”

Gianforte flagged lagging housing supply and governmental red tape as two challenges exacerbating the crisis.

He noted the state’s surging population exceeding new construction starts, and pointed to the rental vacancy rate in Montana — an indicator of housing supply — which fell from 5.7% in 2010 to 4.4% in 2020.

Burdensome regulations, the governor said, are a “wet blanket” to new development and the “American dream” of home ownership.

“Unfortunately, there are ill-advised federal, state and local policies that create unnecessary roadblocks to homeownership,” he told the committee. “Let’s remove them.”

Gianforte appointed Chris Dorrington, director of Montana Department of Environmental Quality, as the task force chairperson. Todd O’Hair, president and CEO of the Montana Chamber of Commerce, was appointed vice-chair.

Northwest Montana residents on the 26-person task force include Glacier Bank President Mike Smith, Bill Leininger with the Montana Association of Realtors, Nathan Dugan with the Shelter WF group in Whitefish, and Polson’s Republican state Sen. Greg Hertz.

Dugan was optimistic that Montana is situated early enough in the trajectory of the housing crisis that it isn’t too late to find solutions and “try some things other places haven’t tried.” He wants the task force to “empower” working-class Montanans.

Leininger, meanwhile, noted the real estate cycles he’s been through as a Realtor, and said a goal of the task force should be to “take the high highs out and the low lows out” for a more sustainable housing market.

Chairperson Dorrington assigned the first task of the committee as inventorying the challenges in regards to home construction, economics, regulations and “local footprint” issues. Once the top challenges are identified, the committee will move to crafting possible solutions, with a goal of curating that list by mid September.

He encouraged creativity in the process.

“If we do the same things we’re always doing, there will be no change,” Dorrington said.

Nearly 300 people tuned in through Zoom for the meeting.

During public comment, Whitefish resident Mallory Phillips pleaded with the task force to consider the “human element” when debating solutions.

“In the Flathead Valley we are hearing stories about school children living in tents and unable to access school transportation because they do not have an address,” she said, choking up with emotion. “We have professionals living out of cars. The stories go on and on.”

The task force will meet again Aug. 1. More information is posted online at https://deq.mt.gov/about/housing-task-force.

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