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Kendall Cotton pushes for accessible housing
The Frontier Institute CEO also cautions the GOP supermajority from abusing its power, and explains what it means to "keep Montana feeling like Montana."
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Greetings, one and all. Merry almost-Christmas! I hope you’re staying warm, and traveling safely through Hoth-tana this week.
I’m thrilled to share this interview with Kendall Cotton, President and CEO of the limited-government advocacy organization the Frontier Institute, and a vocal member of Governor Gianforte’s Housing Task Force.
Our conversation centers on one of the most pressing issues facing Montana today: the widespread and ubiquitous housing shortage.
Between 2010 and 2020, Montana’s population grew by nearly 10%. New construction has not kept pace with the rapid growth, and house prices have risen dramatically statewide in the past few years. According to Zillow, in January 2020, the average home price in Montana stood at $293,000. As of this October, it has since risen to $464,000…an increase of 58%.
The housing crunch impacts the rental market, too: in April, for instance, the Missoula Organization of Realtors reported that supply was at an “all-time low.”
This July, Governor Gianforte assembled a 26-person Housing Task Force to provide potential solutions to the far-reaching problem. The group, which met regularly over the summer and fall, consists of lawmakers of both parties, data scientists, state officials, housing advocates and more.
The task force found that over 70% of residential areas in Montana’s cities either ban or put penalties in place to prevent the construction of multifamily housing. In response, they recommend lawmakers eliminate zoning regulations that stand in the way of denser, “missing middle” style housing—duplexes, town homes, triplexes and fourplexes. The group also pushes for the state to ease restrictions on accessory dwelling units (ADUs), and to do away with regulations like minimum lot sizes.
Kendall Cotton brought a unique perspective to the task force. For one, as far as he can tell, he was the only renter in the group; he and his wife went purchased a house while he served on the task force. He grew up in Florence and lived in Bozeman before moving to Helena, and has seen firsthand the myriad ways that limited housing has impacted his home state.
In our conversation, we explore the long history of single family zoning and the task force’s advice to reverse it. Cotton also pushes back on the idea that Montana is “full,” and explains why the task force hasn’t advocated to regulate short-term rentals. Lastly, we switch gears to talk about the state GOP’s supermajority, and how he believes the party can handle their power responsibly.
Max: Kendall, what inspired you to start the Frontier Institute?
Kendall Cotton: We're kind of the new kids on the block. I founded the organization at the best time to found an organization: the start of the pandemic.
We believe in solving problems with more freedom, not more government. And so, when government gets in the way of people pursuing their dreams in Montana, our mission is to break down those barriers so all Montanans can thrive.
We do that through education. We bring in experts to help put together informative educational content that lawmakers can use to inform their decision making and that the public can use, too, to help hold our lawmakers accountable.
How does housing reform fit into the larger Frontier Institute ethos?
Housing is obviously one of the biggest issues chasing Montana today. It's wrapped into this question of, how do we keep Montana feeling like Montana, now that we've been discovered?
That's a challenging question to answer, but at the Frontier Institute, [we believe that] the problem occurs when the government places constraints on where you can build things and where you can't in these cities.
It leads to conflict in places in Bozeman, where the only people who can afford to live there anymore seem to be richer. Oftentimes it pushes out people who have been there forever.
What does this idea of “keeping Montana feeling like Montana” mean to you?
Montana is one of the few places left in the world where you can get off work at five, and twenty minutes later be on the mountain trail, or running down to the Missouri River to cast a line. It's what makes Montana cities in particular so desirable. From everything that we can see, if we don't reform our zoning codes in these cities to allow for denser development, we're going to lose that and become sprawling cities like Denver and LA.
In addition to this access to the outdoors there's also historically been what I refer to as “radical openness.” With a lot of the current problems that we're facing in Montana right now, we're at risk of losing that culture and turning into what other states have [become], where people are skeptical of outsiders and skeptical of their neighbors.
There’s this NIMBYism rising in our communities; the idea that Montana's full, that no one else can come here and enjoy what we have. And I don't think that's true at all. I think the more people who bring their families and their jobs and businesses and talents to Montana, the better off we're all going to be.
We've been discovered, and people are going to continue to move here. There's no stopping it. When people say, ‘We need to stop people from moving here,’ well, that's a lost cause. So the question becomes, how do we deal with it in a way that preserves this Montana that we all love? And from our perspective, one of the great ways to do that is to remove all the constraints that local governments have placed around building housing to accommodate this new population.
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Even if these policies were enacted, homebuyers would still be dealing with high interest rates. Does that impact the equation?
Oh, it's very relevant. Absolutely. My wife and I just bought a house—
Thank you. Throughout this whole house housing task force I've been a little bit biased as a renter, you know?
We were hoping someday that we could afford a house. So we've been saving up for years and we finally found a place that just made sense. It’s actually a duplex.
I'm walking the walk, right? Like, I'm living in the “missing middle” housing that I'm talking about (laughs). I think I was the only renter actually on the task force.
But for us the big calculus came down to, ‘Gosh, these interest rates are rising, and so we better buy now before they're 10%.’
The term “California zoning” comes up frequently in conversations about housing reform. What does it mean?
At the turn of the 20th century, California was the place where modern zoning was pioneered. Places like LA were some of the first cities to adopt zoning that reserved vast portions of the city for single family style homes on large lots, and impose minimum lot sizes. They've essentially excluded “missing middle” housing.
This is something that cities all across the United States have implemented since California pioneered it back in the day.
What are the housing task force’s primary recommendations?
We've outlined some clear things that need to be addressed.
One, the extent to which cities in this state outright prohibit denser starter homes like duplexes and town homes. Addressing it is low hanging fruit. It costs zero taxpayer dollars to fix.
From our perspective, we need to reform this California-style zoning so that we can put rungs back in the ladder for young families and workers and folks on the lower end of the income spectrum to get into these starter homes and start their lives.
The other component is all of the regulatory layers that you add on top of that zoning, like minimum lot sizes and maximum lot coverages and setbacks. As you [add] regulatory barriers on top of each other, it just makes it harder and harder to actually build those starter homes.
There's not a silver bullet, [a single] regulation that we can repeal. This is going to require a concerted effort by our local communities’ leaders to dive into their zoning codes and find where government is restricting the development of these denser starter homes.
We can either continue to do this in a piecemeal way where every new subdivision has to beg the government to give them permission to be more flexible, or we can write better laws and craft zoning laws that actually accommodate this growth.
Did the task force make any arguments or suggestions that the governor's office resisted?
Not really. The areas with less agreement were where the state legislature should get involved, and to what extent. That’s the sticking point, this debate over local control, and who should address [this issue]. Should it be the local governments or should it be the state government?
Some of the task force’s critics have argued that putting reform under state control results in a one-size-fits-all approach. Does that argument seem reasonable to you?
Well, no. From my perspective, giving people more freedom to build the types of homes that our communities need is actually a much more bottom-up way to address this housing crisis in our communities.
Local governments have the complete power right now to begin addressing these onerous regulations in their communities. There's nothing standing in the way of Missoula or Bozeman or Whitefish from coming together and saying, let's do something about our minimum lot sizes or our prohibition on things like duplexes.
Local control requires local responsibility. Just because something is locally controlled doesn't always mean that there's going to be a good outcome.
We don't really care if it's the legislature or if it's the local governments that address this issue; we’re focused on calling attention to the problem.
You know, I think “local control requires local responsibility” would make for a catchy bumper sticker. Just throwing it out there.
I’ve heard proponents of reform argue for restrictions on short-term rentals, like Airbnbs. Why didn’t the task force recommend that policy?
The task force discussed this but there wasn’t a clear solution [with] consensus. From my perspective, I don't see short-term rentals as being as big of a problem as people make them out to be.
Even if they are a big problem in terms of eating up available rentals, how can the government actually go in and enforce any sort of solution? We're talking about people sharing their homes with other people.
[The state] can go in and talk with the big organizations like Airbnb and Vrbo, but at the end of the day, if someone wants to share their home with somebody else, they can do that via any number of websites or apps or via word of mouth. Unless you have a massive surveillance state that canvases people's homes and marks down how long guests are staying there and who is staying there, [you couldn’t] enforce this with any consistency.
In October, state Senators Ellie Boldman (D) and Greg Hertz (R), House Majority Leader Sue Vinton (R) and state Representative Danny Tenenbaum (D)—all members of the housing task force—published a joint op-ed calling for the legislature to enact the task force’s recommendations. Do you think these specific lawmakers should sponsor related bills in the legislature? Do other folks come to mind?
As far as ideal sponsors, yeah, for sure. Those folks have been leading on this issue. This seems to be an area where there's somewhat of a generational divide. Potentially some of the younger lawmakers—from both parties—will engage with housing issues in the legislature.
When we published our Montana Zoning Atlas report [an online interactive zoning map] back in the spring, we had an op-ed written by five of the youngest Republican lawmakers in the legislature.
Some folks have criticized the task force’s recommendation to limit public comment periods for new developments. How do you respond?
This criticism is [addressing] the idea that we should allow for things like duplexes to be allowed or permitted by right.
We as a community elected our local government leaders. [They] create the zoning laws that will organize where development happens and where it doesn't, and the conditions that need to be met.
A lot of people say that [public hearings] are the only place where democracy happens, and that's just not true. If folks have a problem with the zoning laws allowing too much development, they need to go elect better leaders who are going to past stricter laws.
Every time there's a new development with these public hearings, it just creates confusion and [generates] a lot of uncertainty in the marketplace over whether your development will get approved or not.
Last question for you, Kendall. You recently wrote a blog post about the state’s GOP supermajority. The gist seemed to be, with great power comes a lot of responsibility. Were there specific policies you were alluding to?
I think it's very clear that voters do not trust our government right now. And it’s not just voters. People are very distrustful of our government institutions to do the right thing and to act in their best interests. That's a big problem.
In Montana, voters have overwhelmingly put their trust in Republicans to go and do the right thing and to rebuild our institutions to function in a way that actually serves them. It might be tempting [for lawmakers] to go in and try and score political points and wield even greater political power as a supermajority. But we think that will backfire over the long term, and it's probably going to worsen the distrust that people feel.
The goal should be to restore some confidence in our government. And from our perspective, policy-wise, that means focusing on the issues that aren't always sexy, right? The fundamentals, the building blocks of making our system work. Striking a careful balance of government that upholds the rule of law and honors our founding principles and our individual rights that are enshrined in our constitution.
In a lot of ways our government has been way too responsive to what makes for good red meat. We don't want [lawmakers] who are gonna tweet the best tweets and say the most outrageous things that are gonna get the most attention (laughs).
Can you give any examples of policies or bills that you’d caution the GOP supermajority to avoid?
I don't know about any particular bills, but I think that the supermajority has got to be focused on the fundamental building blocks, the bread and butter economic issues. It’s folks' property rights, it’s government spending, it’s being responsible stewards of our tax dollars and reducing the harmful impacts that regulation can have on our economy. If they stay in that lane, I think they will be upholding the voters’ mandate. What voters don't want is just more politics.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Well, that’s all for today, folks. Thanks for reading. Have a great holiday! We’ll be back next week with a very fun interview to close out 2022.
In the meantime, you can always reach me via email, the comment section below, or on the Elon Machine, @SavageLevenson.