Flathead Valley Residents Among More than 20 Members of Governor’s Housing Task Force

The next meeting of the task force will be a regulatory and permitting sub task force

By Mike Kordenbrock
A subdivision meets farmland off of Three Mile Drive on the westside of Kalispell on Sept. 22, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Several Flathead Valley residents are among the members of a housing task force that met for the first time last week to discuss possible solutions to housing issues in Montana.

In mid-July Gov. Greg Gianforte signed an executive order to create the task force, which will provide recommendations and written reports to try and make housing more affordable and attainable for Montanans. An initial report to is due to be sent to Gianforte by Oct. 15, with a subsequent report due in December. The task force is scheduled to sunset by July 2023 unless rescinded earlier or renewed by another executive order.

The task force has been formed under the oversight of the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). The state agency’s website says that recommendations from the task force could be considered by the state legislature, be taken up as best practices by local jurisdictions, or could be changes that state agencies implement administratively.

 Flathead Valley residents on the task force include Polson Republican Sen. Greg Hertz, Shelter WF president and co-founder Nathan Dugan, Glacier Bank Market President Mike Smith and Montana Association of Realtors President Bill Leininger.

Also on the task force is Billings Republican Rep. Sue Vinton. Vinton introduced House Bill 259 during the 2021 legislative session. That bill, which was signed into law by Gianforte, barred local governments from using inclusionary zoning. The bill dealt a blow to Whitefish’s strategic housing plan.

 Gianforte attended the meeting and addressed the committee.

 “I’ll be candid, this is no small task. It’s complicated, and there is no single bullet that we’re going to shoot and solve this problem. The problem is very serious, it affects all of our communities and it is multi-faceted,” Gianforte said.

The governor said that as he continues to tour Montana communities, affordability of workforce housing is at the top of the list, and that he gets questions about why it’s become so much harder for people to afford a place to live, and why the supply of homes for sale and rent is constricted. Gianforte said he’s heard similar concerns from schools, hospitals, state government and other employers.

 “Between 2010 and 2020, our state’s population has grown by nearly 10%, and yet the supply of housing has only gone up by 7%,” Gianforte said. “Over that same period the rental vacancy rate dropped from nearly 6% to slightly more than 4%, however in some communities it’s below 1%.”

During his remarks, the governor also noted that the cost of building a new home has increased by 18% from March 2021 through March 2022.

“These are some of the macro economic factors, and there are others that rest more with the levels of government. Strict zoning and other housing supply regulations are really a wet blanket on the construction of responsible development. They increase cost and limit supply,” Gianforte said. “We gotta get government out of the way where we responsibly, safely can. We need regulations for public safety and to protect the environment, but in other areas, we’ve got to figure out how to streamline.”

In addition to introductions and the governor’s remarks, the first task force meeting also included discussions of issues and concerns that task force members have identified, as well as some discussion of the challenges DEQ is facing, and the extent to which it can change its processes.

Chris Dorrington, the DEQ director and chair of the task force, called it an elephant in the room, as he acknowledged that his agency has not been meeting statutory deadlines for permit approvals.

 “We have more work and less people. We have incredible turnover,” Dorrington said. Later, he described how the biennial appropriations cycle the legislature operates on has slowed the state down when it comes to making pay adjustments to try and compete with the current job market. Dorrington described how he can hire entry level engineers at between $60,000 and $97,000 a year.

“It’s pretty attractive, until you look at the private market and they’re doing the exact same thing. I’ve had lots of turnover. I’ve lost engineers and scientists to the market,” Dorrington said. “The other thing that COVID did is teach people they can work from anywhere. So, an individual who works for the state can now work in the same home for an organization outside the state and make x-multiplier, and that is very difficult for us to compete with.”

 During the discussion about statutory deadlines Dorrington also said that while his agency is aware of permits that “aren’t out the door yet,” his job is to do “on time, defensible permitting.”

 “We’re held to a standard, we cannot forgo any environmental protections in any permit, and if we were to grease the skids too much, I’m not comfortable losing protections,” he said. “Where we identify solutions that forego duplication or inefficiency, I’m all for that.”

 Amid the public comment portion of the meeting Shelter WF co-founder Mallory Phillips grew emotional as she discussed the changes she has seen in her hometown of Whitefish and urged the task force not to forget how housing issues are affecting people’s lives.

 “I see the big impact of losing people who are not just wealthy in our communities. I am hoping that whatever comes from this task force that ya’ll do not forget the very human element of the housing crisis. 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. We are having professionals living out of cars. The stories go on and on.”

 The next meeting of the task force will be a regulatory and permitting sub task force. The meeting is scheduled for 1 p.m. on July 28, and can be viewed remotely via Zoom by going to deq.mt.gov/about/housing-task-force.