Building a New Place to Call Home
Following the explosion of remote work during the COVID-19 pandemic, Californians, New Yorkers, and thousands of others from across the U.S. have moved to Montana to take advantage of its beautiful landscape, economic opportunities, and generous elbowroom. This influx of people has placed immense pressure on the housing market as demand far outpaces supply, causing home prices to skyrocket.
Montana now ranks as the least affordable state in the U.S. for housing. Families and local leaders in fast-growing cities like Bozeman are concerned that their community is changing for the worse as people are priced out of the opportunity for homeownership.
“When you drive past some streets in Bozeman, you’ll see lines of camping vehicles—people who are out there in the wintertime when it’s negative 20 degrees,” said Kendall Cotton, president and CEO of Frontier Institute, an Atlas Network partner based in Montana.
“And many of these folks are not jobless, they just can’t afford a home in Bozeman where they work.”
Frontier Institute is helping to solve the state’s housing shortage with a bipartisan effort to free up homebuilding and restore property rights in Montana.
Though this young organization was only founded in 2020, Frontier Institute has already taken a key role in the state’s policy process. Frontier Institute’s Montana Zoning Atlas project has successfully delivered an unprecedented package of pro-housing reforms to address the state’s housing crisis that has garnered national attention.
Framing the Issue
Published in 2022, the Montana Zoning Atlas report demonstrates how strict local zoning regulations in Montana cities often penalize or even outright prohibit building the most affordable types of homes.
This powerful data provoked responses and calls to action from major newspaper editorial boards, legislators, local officials, and other leaders from all sides of the political spectrum.
Kendall was invited to join the governor’s Housing Task Force to provide recommendations to lawmakers for improving housing affordability. The task force adopted several of Frontier Institute’s proposals to reform strict local zoning regulations and give Montana landowners more freedom to build affordable homes.
Their campaign to remove the restrictive zoning policies was aided by viral talking points that used examples from another state many Montanans love to hate.
“No Montanan wants to see us become like California. What that means in our minds is miles of urban sprawl taking over all the open space and ranch land that Montanans enjoy,” Kendall said.
California was once a hot destination known for many of the same qualities that Montana is known for, but Los Angeles and other cities in California were some of the first U.S. municipalities to pioneer strict zoning, only allowing for expensive large-lot single-family homes to be built in city centers.
“Throughout the years, this strict zoning pushed development outward and caused home prices to rise. We said, if Montana cities are zoned like L.A., then it should be no surprise that they will grow like L.A.,” Kendall said.
Frontier’s project to end “California-style zoning” in Montana and increase the number of affordable starter homes attracted support from small local housing developers and grassroots groups representing renters and homebuyers, creating a diverse coalition that ranged from free-market advocates to socialist city council members.
Blueprint for Success
The diverse coalition supporting their reforms enabled Frontier Institute to overcome common lawmaker objections to regulatory reform.
“We were able to message about zoning issues to folks who are right-of-center who cared about protecting property rights, and folks on the left who were more focused on social justice and climate issues,” Kendall said.
“By highlighting and promoting diverse viewpoints all uniting around a common goal of providing more freedom for property owners, we’ve been able to reach broader audiences on the left and the right than we ever could before with our message.”
The sweeping pro-housing reforms championed by Frontier Institute roll back strict local zoning regulations to give landowners more freedom to build affordable starter homes while also dramatically streamlining the permit process to speed up construction and drive housing costs down for everyone.
In Montana’s 2023 legislative session, a package of four of these proposals was enacted into state law. These solutions included allowing duplex home construction where only single-family homes can currently be built today, permitting multi-unit housing in commercially zoned areas in more populated cities, and allowing smaller homes called Accessory Dwelling Units, which are often built on the same lot or within the structure of an existing house or garage.
As a 2023 Atlas Network Smart Bets participant, Frontier Institute is part of an exclusive team of think tanks that has received additional investments, consulting, and networking opportunities to accelerate their ambitious plans. Each year at Liberty Forum & Freedom Dinner in New York City, one Smart Bets organization is recognized with the $25,000 Smart Bets Impact Award.
Kendall says support from Atlas Network was an important part of the successful campaign.
“Thanks to Atlas Network’s support for our campaign, we’ve been able to explore new modes of communicating with people, and we’ve really generated enthusiasm where now people are saying, ‘Wow, we want to support you guys and do more of this work.’”