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UPDATE 05/19/23: All of the bills listed in this article have been signed into law by Governor Gianforte.

In the last three weeks, Montana rocketed through a housing agenda that would give most US states a nosebleed. 

Duplexes: legal. Backyard cottages: legal. Discretionary design review: ended. Residential parking: optional after the first space. Commercial zones: they’re also apartment zones now.  

How’d it happen? A bipartisan coalition united around a simple idea: when in a housing shortage, let cities build like they used to.  

A series of housing supply bills, expected to be signed by Governor Greg Gianforte, would restore the ability to build accessory dwelling units (ADUs) and duplexes in cities across Montana as well as permit multifamily housing in commercial zones. Other bills shielded new housing from “not in my backyard” challenges and delays. All these bills gained wide bipartisan support in the Republican supermajority legislature. 

Combined, the adopted policies will change how Montana grows for decades to come. Currently 70 percent of residential land prohibits or penalizes multifamily dwellings in Montana’s 13 most populous cities. These exclusionary zoning laws were commonly adopted during the last century, restricting less expensive types of homes like middle housing and ADUs, and pushing new construction to the outskirts of cities—to sprawl.  

It wasn’t always that way. Senator Greg Hertz (R) recounted that there used to be more housing types when he was growing up, from apartments above the garage to triplexes. “It was all over the place,” he said. “We don’t have that anymore. Local governments zoned all that out.”  

Regulatory reform efforts have most commonly been fought in blue states with rapidly growing metro areas. But Montana is showing that, when a housing crisis looms and affects community members of all political stripes, victories can come from anywhere. 

montana housing Bills that died in 2021 came back, with more friends and higher stakes 

2023 had already been such a success for housing reform in Montana that when CityLab’s How YIMBYs Won Montana was published at the end of April and two major housing supply bills had run into hurdles, the writer still dubbed the state’s overall pro-housing policy successes a “Montana miracle.” By now, even those two bills have sailed through the legislature. A miracle indeed. But it took both an intensified crisis of affordability and a careful cross-partisan collaboration.  

This is a 180-degree turn from the last legislative session in 2021, when these same ideas quickly were shot down. Just two short years ago, bills to allow ADUs and middle housing options never made it out of their first committees. 

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  • What changed? First, the housing crisis in Montana has soared to new heights. In the past five years the average home price in the state has nearly doubled, increasing from about $239,000 in 2018 to $428,000 today, according to Zillow. That is the second highest price spike in the United States, after neighboring Idaho. The state legislature in Montana only meets every other year, adding to the pressure for action to head off the affordability crisis. 

    “We can’t afford to wait any longer,” Sen. Hertz testified on the ADU bill he brought back after failing to get support 2021. But this year, the same committee that had killed the bill voted 7-2 in support.  

    Another shift: a well-organized set of stakeholders respected by both parties. The driving force behind the year of housing was a strong bipartisan coalition of advocates, first convened by the Governor on a housing task force. Hertz had served on it, as well as pro-housing Missoula Democrat Danny Tenenbaum. Nonprofit organizations like Habitat for Humanity and Shelter Whitefish sat next to free-market driven think tanks like the Frontier Institute and Mercatus Center. A few months before the 2023 legislative session started, the unlikely bedfellows published a report recommending regulatory changes to boost housing affordability. The organizations also built buy-in on their own sides of the aisle.  

    “We were able to go to mostly Republicans and talk about free markets the importance of property rights. They were able to go to folks on the left and talk about climate and social impacts,” Kendall Cotton, the president and CEO of the Frontier Institute told CityLab. “It doesn’t break down on normal partisan lines. Advocates shouldn’t silo themselves on the normal partisan lines.”

    Trusted voices on the left, including the Blackfeet Tribe, Forward Montana, and Shelter Whitefish, testified in support of legalizing a variety of multifamily housing, which tends to cost less than comparable detached homes.  

    “Duplexes, triplexes, and fourplexes are some of the most affordable types of housing available,” testified Izzy Milch, of youth-led advocacy organization Forward Montana. “And they’re currently banned in much of our state, which is leading to urban sprawl, increased prices, and decreased access to housing for the people who need it the most.” Debates on the bills largely sidestepped specific affordability requirements for new housing that have tripped up Democrats elsewhere, like the transit-oriented development bill that died in Washington state this year. The bills were kept simple, their final versions clocking in at just four pages each. 

    Even the sweeping Montana Land Use Planning Act, SB 382, which changes local housing approval processes and forces cities to adopt a number of land use reforms, became stronger throughout the session instead of being watered down. 

    Much like “California-style zoning,” a foe both sides trotted out as the bogeyman to quash, the zoning restrictions at the heart of Montana’s housing crisis are unfortunately widespread in plenty of other states and provinces across the continent. Fortunately, though, the pace of political change that unfolded in Montana over the past few years can also spread far and wide. It took a few dozen people at the heart of this effort, working across party lines and for the common interest of their residents, to change the conversation in Big Sky Country. Where else could pro-housing advocates do the same to promote abundant, lower-cost housing options? 

    Montana’s Big 2023 Housing Bills 

    SB 245 – Sponsored by Senator Daniel Zolnikov (R) 

    Legalizes multifamily and mixed-use buildings in existing commercially zoned districts in cities with more than 5,000 residents. Zoning in those jurisdictions may not require more than one parking space per household anywhere. This will make a significant difference for cities like Billings, where Zolnikov is from, which currently requires two parking spaces for each household even in mixed-use buildings. 

    SB 528 – Sponsored by Senator Greg Hertz (R) 

    Possibly the most permissive statewide accessory dwelling unit (ADU, also known as “backyard cottages” and “bonus homes”) legalization in the United States. This bill allows one ADU on every lot where single family homes are allowed, up to 1,000 square feet or 75 percent of principal unit (whichever is smaller). Cities will no longer be able to mandate off-street parking, owner occupancy requirements, or impact fees. 

    SB 323 – Sponsored by Senator Jeremy Trebas (R) 

    Legalizes attached or detached duplexes anywhere where single family homes are permitted in cities with more than 5,000 residents.  

    SB 406 – Sponsored by Senator Jeremy Trebas (R) 

    Limits local building codes from being more stringent than what the state requires. 

    SB 382 – Sponsored by Senator Forrest Mandeville (R) 

    No discretionary approval required for projects that comply with local comprehensive plans. Municipalities must adopt five reforms from a list that includes options ranging from increasing building heights to reducing parking requirements and impact fees.  

    SB 407 – Sponsored by Senator Shane Morigeau (D)

    Limits design review to items that affect public health or safety. Variance requests moved to staff-level approval.