The Volokh Conspiracy

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A YIMBY Victory in Montana

Montana's sweeping new zoning reform is both good in itself and a potential model for cross-ideological cooperation on this issue elsewhere.


Exclusionary zoning causes massive housing shortages that prevent millions of people from "moving to opportunity" and becoming more productive. The state of Montana is about to enact important new zoning reforms that will make it easier to build new housing in the state. The new legislation is the product of an unusual cross-ideological coalition that might serve as a model for "YIMBY" reforms elsewhere. CityLab housing expert Kriston Capps has a helpful analysis of these developments:

Lawmakers in Montana's state legislature advanced bills in April that would shake up zoning, land use and building codes, making it much easier for property owners to build new housing — and much harder for local authorities to stop them.

A flurry of five separate "Yes In My Backyard" bills — all five sponsored by Republican legislators — are winding their way through various committees. One would require cities to permit backyard flats and other accessory dwelling units by right. Another law would allow duplex homes to be built in places zoned for single-family housing. If Montana Governor Greg Gianforte, also a Republican, signs even a couple of these bills into law, Montana will have leapfrogged several East and West Coast states that have struggled to respond to housing shortages at home….

In one fell swoop, the Montana legislature could issue a range of deregulatory actions that have only moved forward in California after years of agitation. On April 20, the legislature passed SB 323, which requires any city with more than 5,000 residents to permit duplex housing in areas zoned for single-family homes. Gianforte is expected to sign this bill as well as SB 406, which prohibits local governments from passing building codes that are stricter than the state code, any time now.

Of the bills in view, the most consequential is SB 382, the Montana Land Use Planning Act, a YIMBY omnibus package the likes of which few blue states would dare to consider.

SB 382 would transform the development process, limiting public hearings on housing projects by front-loading them to the general planning stages, when municipalities adopt their overall land-use plans. After that, approvals in Montana cities would proceed by right — effectively shutting out NIMBY homeowners who often thwart growth.

As Capps explains, the new legislation is the product of an unusual left-right political coalition:

The wave of legislation is the work of a diverse group of advocates from both the political left and right. The coalition behind this push is clear about its goal: Montana needs to head off a housing crisis at the pass.

On this point advocates can agree, even if on almost every other subject, they're worlds apart. And by joining forces, this left-right coalition cleared a political impasse that has blocked so-called housing-abundant policies, which strive to remove barriers to new construction.

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," says Kendall Cotton, president and CEO of the Frontier Institute, a right-leaning free-market think tank. "It doesn't break down on normal partisan lines. Advocates shouldn't silo themselves on the normal partisan lines."

The YIMBY movement taking shape in Helena is unusual in the US: Few states with a Republican governor, much less with a GOP supermajority in the legislature, have advanced such sweeping efforts to promote new housing construction in cities. Some red states have seen the opposite happen: When Gainesville became the first city in Florida to end single-family-only zoning locally, state leaders threatened legal action, and local Democrats repealed the ordinance before it could take effect.

Zoning reform cuts across standard ideological lines. Economists and housing experts across the political spectrum agree on the need to curb exclusionary zoning. But there is also is long history of both left and right-wing NIMBYism, motivated by a combination of public ignorance, suspicion of market forces and developers, and (particularly, though far from exclusively, on the right) fear of disruption of existing communities by in-migration, especially that by the poor and racial minorities.

NIMBY opposition will be easier to overcome if reform advocates can work together across traditional political lines, as they have in Montana. As Copps notes, such coalitions may not be needed in overwhelmingly "blue" jurisdictions, where conservatives and libertarians have too little political influence to make much difference. But they can be useful in light-red, light-blue, and "purple" states like Virginia, where GOP Governor Glenn Youngkin has recently advocated reform, but will likely need help from Democrats to push legislation through. A broad coalition has turned out to be valuable even in strongly red Montana, where the support of liberals helped push reform over the top.

Whether Montana's success can be replicated elsewhere remains to be seen.  Capps suggests "[i]t's possible that the special sauce in Montana is ultimately Montana itself." But, while Montana-specific factors surely played a role here, the problems caused by exclusionary zoning are from unique to that state. Reformers should at least try to learn from the Montana experience and see if they can develop similar coalitions in other states.