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Bozeman is in a housing death spiral. Can local politics fix anything?

A house with a for sale sign in the yard.

For decades, housing affordability has been a hot-button issue in Bozeman politics, a clear community pain point where the city’s elected leaders haven’t managed to deliver significant relief. As insider and outsider candidates campaigned for city offices in 2021, housing policy became the election’s key issue. The solution, some residents argued, was to elect working-class advocates to positions of power. Key to getting the job done, others countered, is experienced, incumbent leadership.

Transcript:

Mara Silvers Welcome to Shared State. I'm Mara Silvers. This season, we have stories about Montanans working through intractable conflicts. In our last episode, we heard about how some locals in Whitefish are tackling the cost of living themselves when they feel like government can't keep up. This time around, we're looking at another place where housing is a real point of pain: Bozeman. Reporter Eric Dietrich spent some time there last fall talking to people who want City Hall to try to fix these problems.

Eric Dietrich Yeah, so I want to take you to a Sunday morning in late October. I met up with about half a dozen Bozeman residents in a park on the city's north side. Most of them were in their 20s, and they were there to campaign for a city commission candidate. They went around in a circle and introduced themselves.

Zach My name is Zach; I use he/him pronouns. I'm out here this morning just because I've decided like, I want to make Bozeman my permanent home. To do that, I know that we have to like, put in the work now to make Bozeman like, affordable and accessible to everyone later.

Eric Dietrich Back in the day, that part of town was one of the city's more affordable neighborhoods. But just across the street that day from us was a small house with a "for sale" sign out front. I looked it up on my phone, and according to Zillow, its list price was $599,000. A sale was pending. One of the activists there was talking about a conversation she had had recently with another Bozeman resident, someone who was pretty pessimistic about the direction the city was headed.

Unnamed Bozeman resident And she was like, "It's over." Like, Bozeman's already Aspen, Colorado. Like, there's no saving it, it's done. And like, we were talking about- I was like, I haven't given up yet. Like, come join this fight with me. Like, there actually is a chance to make this livable for people and it's going to take work.

Mara Silvers It's not like affordable housing in Bozeman is necessarily a new issue, right? I mean, you used to work in Bozeman, you used to cover City Hall. Hasn't this issue about affordability been a problem in Bozeman for decades?

Eric Dietrich Yeah. So five years ago, when I was a reporter there, I saw City Hall do all sorts of things in Bozeman; they were trying to get a handle on what felt like the biggest issue in the community even then. But now, with the benefit of hindsight, looking back at all the things they tried, it really seems like not a lot of it necessarily moved the needle, and the issue, the housing issue is more pressing than ever. Gallatin County, the region that includes Bozeman, has almost doubled in population over the past 20 years, and because of that, there's now a shortage of homes. Prices have risen as a result. The average single-family home runs about $700,000. And those increases have had all sorts of spillover impacts on the community. Businesses are having a harder time hiring people, and you're hearing more and more stories about people, even people who have jobs and work full time, who are living in RVs because they can't afford other housing options.

Mara Silvers What were you hoping to learn from this group of activists in the park?

Eric Dietrich So one of the things that felt new in the 2021 election cycle was how those young Bozeman residents we heard from -- and others in the political process, too -- were really focused on the housing issue. It made me wonder: If elections are where we choose our leaders, what sorts of people does Bozeman need in its leadership positions to make progress on the housing issue? And can those people win elections? A lot of the decisions we make about who gets to build where and how happen at the local level. So it's your city commissioners, it's your mayors, they're the people who are fundamentally responsible for a lot of that. And they're the people that are accountable to voters for trying to solve that. And so I wanted to talk to the people that want to have that job in Bozeman and see what they had to say about it.

Mara Silvers In this episode, the politics of problem solving. Can a city commission election put Bozeman on track to fix its housing crunch? Eric, tell me a little bit more about those activists that you were hanging out with in the park that day. What exactly were they campaigning for?

Eric Dietrich This guy, Joey Morrison:

Joey Morrison I'm Joey. I use he and him pronouns.

Eric Dietrich He's running for a seat on the city commission, and, telling you a little more about Joey. He grew up in eastern Montana, studied at Montana State University and then stuck around Bozeman after college. Joey is a renter. He feels that he's in the middle of a, you know, existential housing struggle, and he's young for a local government candidate, in his mid-20s and has worked in the service industry. He was working at a sushi restaurant through most of the campaign and is also on staff at Bozeman Seasonal Homeless Shelter.

Joey Morrison It's time for our city to grow into a home for all of us, not just the elite.

Eric Dietrich His pitch is that, as a working class resident of Bozeman, he knows what the affordability struggle is like in his gut in a way that older, more establishment candidates don't.

Joey Morrison We deserve better, and it's time for one of us.

Eric Dietrich And he argues that that identity gives him the gumption to fight for solutions that the city's current leadership hasn't delivered.

Mara Silvers I mean, seeing how big a deal housing is in Bozeman, I can't imagine that Joey was the only candidate campaigning on this stuff.

Eric Dietrich No, he wasn't. I also honed in on one other candidate, this guy who was running for mayor. Terry Cunningham.

Terry Cunningham I've been leading the charge on affordable housing solutions.

Eric Dietrich Terry was a much more traditional candidate. He's a middle-aged homeowner, and -- this is important -- an incumbent. He's served on the commission since 2018.

Terry Cunningham I don't just talk about affordable housing. I get things done. I'd appreciate your vote for mayor.

Mara Silvers OK, so a pretty well-connected kind of establishment guy.

Eric Dietrich Yeah. So we have these two candidates we're looking at. On the one hand, we have Joey, the young progressive who really campaigned railing against the do-nothing political establishment, the people that have been in power and not succeeded in solving the housing issue. And then the other, we have Terry, who has been in power and argues that that's part of his strength as a candidate, actually. He says that "I've been around. I know how to work the levers of power you can pull as a city commissioner.

Mara Silvers Are they running against each other?

Eric Dietrich No, actually. There were multiple seats on the commission last year that were open, and they were running for different ones. Terry was going for the mayor's seat and Joey was going for a basic commission seat. So the thing about the city commission races is they're technically nonpartisan, so we're not talking Republican or Democrat -- though in the grand scheme of things, both Terry and Joey really lean to the left. That said, they really represent two different camps in Bozeman politics. They have a lot of ideas about housing in particular, but really come at that issue from different positions in life. So in some ways, the election was kind of a litmus test for the type of person that Bozeman voters wanted to have run their city and deal with this issue.

Mara Silvers Was housing the only thing that Joey and Terry were running on?

Eric Dietrich Oh no. Terry was talking a lot about land and wildlife conservation, and Joey, for his part, was passionate about climate change issues and other progressive priorities, like defunding the police. But housing was very clearly the biggest issue of both campaigns.

Mara Silvers Let's talk about Terry for a second. What did he sound like on the campaign trail?

Eric Dietrich So he talked a lot about coordination and partnership. He often sounded pretty wonky.

Terry Cunningham My name's Terry Cunningham.

Eric Dietrich During a candidate forum I watched in October, he had actually printed out a bunch of PowerPoint-style slides on poster boards and was flipping them over as he described a housing action plan.

Terry Cunningham And I would approach the One Valley Community Foundation, the MSU Foundation, the city and the county with their ARPA funds and community housing funds, area philanthropies and a consortium. [fades]

Eric Dietrich And he wasn't done. He went on at length about ideas to get the local school district and the university to chip in some land and leverage that to get developers to build starter homes.

Terry Cunningham [fade in] state properties to donate land as long as it's used for affordable housing. And I have my eye on two.

Mara Silvers That's such an intricate pitch.

Eric Dietrich Yeah, honestly, I loved it. Like trying to present himself as a down-to-brass-tacks sort of guy.

Mara Silvers Did you actually get a sense that he was passionate about housing issues?

Eric Dietrich Yeah, I did. That came across, for example, during a commission meeting in the summer of 2021.

Terry Cunningham This crisis impacts every part of our community. Our housing market is chasing away our workforce, our young families and our middle class. The plain facts are, we are being hollowed out as a community.

Eric Dietrich At that meeting, he was making a pitch for a levy that would set aside money for affordable housing projects through the city. That was also on the ballot in November. The idea was to raise about a million dollars a year for things like subsidized rental developments through property tax increases.

Terry Cunningham It's my belief that this is perhaps the most important vote that we will take this year.

Eric Dietrich Putting the levy before voters, he said, would force a frank discussion of the housing issue. Terry and Joey actually sound a lot alike on this. Terry quite explicitly framed the mill levy as a moral question for Bozeman voters.

Terry Cunningham By putting this initiative on the November ballot, we'll allow our citizens to vote their values on the very basic issue of housing.

Eric Dietrich So we have Terry, who's plugging away on policy fixes for the housing problem, even though they're really wonky and oftentimes incremental. And then we have Joey, on the other hand, who is out campaigning for more aggressive action that could get people immediate help. We spent some time with him as he knocked on doors trying to get that message out to voters.

Renter Hello.

Joey Morrison Hello. How are you doing today?

Renter Good. How are you?

Eric Dietrich A lot of the renters especially really responded well to his pitch.

Joey Morrison Talking to folks about our platform, but also trying to hear from folks like you about like what's tough about living in Bozeman.

Renter Rent?

Joey Morrison Yeah, easy one.

Renter Yeah, for sure. Yeah.

Eric Dietrich Joey and the voter chatted for a while more. Joey made a point of looking for common ground to connect with him on. The voter liked that Joey was young — 26.

Joey Morrison And yeah, I'm running on a platform of like, this community is rapidly becoming unlivable for young working-class people who literally make the community run. Like, I have been working in a restaurant for the last nine months, like I'm literally part of the industry that brings all these rich people in, that make them love it here. But yet we can't afford to stay.

Renter Yeah, because they want to look at our affordable housing. Yeah, I'm spending five million dollars on a beautiful ranch.

Joey Morrison Right? Yeah.

Renter But they need us.

Joey Morrison Exactly. But they need us.

Mara Silvers That voter that Joey was talking to was a renter. How did Joey's pitch go over with homeowners?

Eric Dietrich That was a harder sell for him sometimes.

Joey Morrison Yeah, you have such a crew here.

Eric Dietrich Here he is talking to a woman who answered the door at a newly built house a few blocks from downtown. Her answer about what's tough about living in Bozeman wasn't about rent, it was about property taxes, the collections that go to fund local services.

Homeowner I'm always for schools. I'm always for education. But then well, and then of course, I want like the facilities, the swimming, you know, like, can we not find a different way, or where are the funds coming from? And...

Joey Morrison Yeah.

Homeowner It's tricky.

Eric Dietrich I checked some public records later. The tax bill on that woman's home was about $660 a month.

Homeowner We just finished this house. We, I grew up here in Bozeman, and this is like our dream house. And now just the thought of when it gets reassessed, and what we're going to have to pay in property taxes — it's like a deep, deep gulp. Because that's just like a huge added cost.

Joey Morrison Yeah.

Eric Dietrich She eventually did tell Joey that she'd already mailed in a ballot for him.

Mara Silvers It strikes me that Joey and Terry and other people who are campaigning on housing issues are having to come up with a solution for something that's been a problem for such a long time. It just makes me wonder, why haven't city leaders figured out a way out of this problem?

Eric Dietrich Well, buckle up for a policy crash course, Mara.

Mara Silvers OK, let's go.

Eric Dietrich So, for starters, housing prices are driven by supply and demand. If more people want to be in a place like Bozeman than there are physical homes available, rent and purchase prices are driven up. I talked to Corianne Scally.

Corianne Scally [fade in] trying to pull up a cheat sheet.

Eric Dietrich She's a housing policy researcher at the Urban Institute, a national think tank. She said population surges can create a seller's market.

Corianne Scally And folks compete over the prices for the few units that are available to an expanding population.

Eric Dietrich And that dynamic gets even messier in places like Bozeman, where there's very often an income disparity between locals and new arrivals. If the new arrivals can afford to pay more, they're the ones who get first pick.

Corianne Scally Maybe folks who have lived there longer, maybe earn lower wages can be outbid and start to struggle.

Mara Silvers What can places like Bozeman actually do to manage those market forces?

Eric Dietrich You hear all sorts of ideas thrown around: things like rent subsidies, land trusts, real estate transfer taxes. It's hard to keep track of all those things, sometimes, much less think through which of them might work in a particular situation.

Mara Silvers As somebody who covers housing policy, how do you keep track of these options?

Eric Dietrich Oh my gosh. I find it helpful to sort things in my head into two buckets: the supply bucket-

Corianne Scally What housing units are out there and at what price points-

Eric Dietrich -and the demand bucket.

Corianne Scally Looking at the ability to afford housing, either to rent or to purchase. And that gets to things like ability to pay, you know, strategies [fades]

Mara Silvers So if city government decides to offer assistance, so it's easier for working-class families to pay their rent? That would be a demand side strategy, right?

Eric Dietrich Yes. And if instead, they say, "Hey, we're going to offer incentives like waiving sewer connection fees to try to get developers to build more homes," that's a supply side strategy.

Mara Silvers OK, so how did those buckets square with the way that Terry and Joey are thinking about policy?

Eric Dietrich Honestly, both of them have nuanced views in this stuff. Each of them, in conversations I heard, talked about both supply side and demand side strategies. You know, Terry, for example, noted that the city has been studying whether or not their zoning policies it has that it could change to make it easier to build new housing in particular ways. But he's also campaigning on land conservation, which can mean things like restricting development on farmland or wetlands and places you want to save for parks. And that makes it harder to build new housing. So there's a tradeoff oftentimes between conservation and supply side housing approaches. Joey, on the other hand, is skeptical that Bozeman can build its way out of its problem.

Joey Morrison Yeah, I'm certainly not in the camp of just like, more inventory means that we're solving the problem. I think that's what we've been seeing going on for the last several years. The houses that are still being built right now and the ones that are not quite on the market yet, there's no reason to suspect that they're going to be affordable in any way.

Eric Dietrich His position is really, "We need more of the right type of housing." And he's also more enthusiastic than, say, Terry, about looking at ways to use city power to get there, like regulating prices. I heard him tell a voter about using the city zoning power to make it harder to build high-end homes, for example, and he also wants to offer subsidies to open up more rental options.

Joey Morrison So if you're a homeowner and you have a spare bedroom and you just don't want to rent it, and the city says, "Well, we'll pay you $200 a month if you rent it at $500." Suddenly, that makes it a little bit more appealing.

Mara Silvers There's another housing idea that I hear talked about a lot, which is inclusionary zoning, basically where cities and towns mandate that a portion of new homes be priced affordably. Did that come up on the campaign trail?

Eric Dietrich It did. Yeah, mostly because that was something that Bozeman was trying to do before the Republican-controlled state Legislature banned those sorts of policies last year. The free market theory there is that price mandates like inclusionary zoning can discourage home construction. And so the conservatives in the Legislature were worried that that type of policy could actually make it harder for places like Bozeman to get caught up on the home supply by having fewer people who choose to build.

Mara Silvers Are there other policy solutions that local leaders in Bozeman can't do because of state policy?

Eric Dietrich Yes. State law, which the Legislature writes, keeps Montana's cities from enacting policies like real estate transfer fees or rent control. And that's actually a really sore spot for people like Terry.

Terry Cunningham I liken it to trying to escape from an island, from an unaffordable island, and you go down all of these tunnels and you think you're there and then you reach a gate and it says 'ha, ha, ha, locked courtesy of the Montana State Legislature.'

Eric Dietrich He's also frustrated that state law keeps Bozeman from doing things like a local sales tax that could provide money for housing projects. That would, of course, be an alternative to this property tax levy and one that would pick up some of its revenue from tourists instead of from homeowners.

Terry Cunningham It's a difficult situation made more difficult by the Legislature because we have so few opportunities to to solve this problem with funding.

Eric Dietrich The rub here for Bozeman is that it's a liberal college town in a conservative state. There are very real political constraints to keep in mind if you're somebody who's looking at the city's housing problems and thinks the right solution is muscular government action like price controls or big subsidies.

Mara Silvers Joey and Terry are both on the progressive side of the spectrum. What do conservatives think Bozeman should be doing to fix this problem?

Eric Dietrich The most common idea you hear in Republican circles is deregulating. So, getting rid of things like minimum lot sizes or higher density restrictions, parking requirements. Republicans often think that liberal cities just have too many rules, and that makes it too hard to build the housing they need. And some progressives actually agree with them to an extent. Joey, for example, criticized Boston's parking requirements, which can be strict enough to limit new development.

Mara Silvers Sometimes those ideas sound like they've fallen to the supply side bucket. So why doesn't the city just, you know, throw out its zoning code?

Eric Dietrich Because there are reasons that all those things exist, right? Like you adopt rules to try to protect the character of existing neighborhoods or to conserve farmland, or to make sure that the city isn't approving new houses that will overload its sewer pipes. Here's Corianne Scally, the housing policy expert, again.

Corianne Scally It's really a more complex question than just can we build more housing units, right? It's actually thinking about public infrastructure, you know, thinking about roads, thinking about water systems and, you know, public utilities.

Eric Dietrich And I want to get back to the question you asked earlier about why Bozeman's leadership hasn't been able to sort through the housing crunch yet. I think part of the answer is all the stuff we just ran through. It's just horribly complicated.

Mara Silvers Just who Bozeman voters decided to pick for that thankless job after the break.

Welcome back to Shared State. Reporter Eric Dietrich has been talking about how two candidates in Bozeman city commission election Joey Morrison and Terry Cunningham are proposing to tackle the area's affordable housing issues. Eric, how did that election actually play out?

Eric Dietrich Let's go to election night. Tuesday, Nov. 2. By the time polls closed, nearly 14,000 Bozeman residents had cast ballots. That's a turnout rate of just over 40%.

Joey and his supporters were camped out at Columbo's Pizza Parlor, just across the street from the Montana State University campus. While they were waiting, one of the organizers asked supporters to shout out what a victory would mean to them.

[supporters] Our future.

Representation.

Beginning.

I put beginning too!

Gratification.

And affirmation. And transformation.

Mara Silvers It definitely sounds like they were in high spirits, had their hopes up. What was going on with Terry's supporters as the results for his race came in?

Eric Dietrich They had assembled in a side room at the Poorhouse Bar, just a block from city hall downtown. It was a smaller crowd there, but kind of a who's who of Bozeman politics. I spotted a county commissioner, a school board member, at least one state representative. So it's just not surprising for an incumbent who works all these people routinely. Terry was over at the courthouse to catch the initial round of election results firsthand, and I was in the room as he came back in. Terry ultimately got two thirds of the vote for mayor.

He went around the room calling out the various notables in attendance, noting how they're all working on growth challenges in different ways.

"So it's these collaborations. It's these personal connections that allow us to put our humility and be humble about it, put our pride aside and just say, what's the best thing for the community? And then we work together to do that. So that's the message ..."

Mara Silvers Thinking back to one of Terry's major plans for fixing affordability; What about the housing levy? Did that pass?

Eric Dietrich It ended up failing by less than 300 votes.

Mara Silvers Oh, that is so close. Why do you think it failed?

Eric Dietrich Oh, I'm not sure that I can say definitively, but I should note that it was one of four property tax increases on the ballot last fall. For example, a measure to fund swimming pool upgrades passed overwhelmingly. So it may have been that voters were just prioritizing other things to support.

Mara Silvers It seems like that would be such a mixed bag for Terry to win the mayoral seat, but then have one of his major proposals fail. Did he talk about that?

Eric Dietrich He only mentioned it briefly in his victory speech, so I pulled him aside afterwards.

Terry Cunningham So, difficult decisions are ahead of us, because I think the commission has prioritized community housing.

Eric Dietrich He said it's important that the city continue to set aside money for housing efforts, but said that the levy would have saved the commission from having to choose between housing and other programs they wanted to find.

Terry Cunningham And so we'll have to, you know, perhaps cut other services in order to fund affordable housing. But that's, again, part of the budget-making process is making difficult decisions.

Eric Dietrich After talking to Terry, I drove back across town to catch Joey's folks at the pizza parlor.

"So, we found out recently that KBZK called it and Jay Madgic has won the seat."

[supporters]: Boo. I demand a recount.

Eric Dietrich Joey's main opponent in his race was a former staffer for Senator Jon Tester. She had been appointed to an open commission seat in 2020 and then won November's election by 24 percentage points. So, not a close race at all. And actually, all four incumbents who are up for election in November were reelected.

Mara Silvers How did Joey's supporters take his loss?

Eric Dietrich The mood in the pizza parlor turned heavy fast.

"Everybody close your eyes. And just, like, let whatever you're feeling, like, sink in a little bit."

Eric Dietrich There was this really palpable sense of frustration in the room. One of the organizers stood up and started venting about how Joey's establishment opponent seemed to have been reelected by default.

[organizer]: "You know, like, this isn't, like, this isn't how democracy is supposed to work. This isn't, like, this isn't good."

Eric Dietrich But then she said it was time to grieve and ask the crowd to sing with her.

[organizer singing]: "Just for a little while, I know there's a world worth fighting for."

Eric Dietrich [crowd singing]: "Just for a little while, I know there's a world worth fighting for."

Mara Silvers So, as much pent up frustration and even anger there is about housing in Bozeman, voters didn't decide to pick new leadership. Where do you think the city goes from here?

Eric Dietrich I've been thinking about that a lot. I saw energy around Joey's campaign that really could have interesting implications for Bozeman's politics and housing policy in the long run. He and his supporters didn't seem focused so much on electing him specifically, but instead on building a movement. And he said as much in his concession speech.

Joey Morrison We knew going into this that this is going to be nothing short than a decades long battle to change this community, to change this state. We knew that. But we knocked thousands of doors and talked to communities that never get talked to. We talked to low income folks who had never had somebody come and talk to them before. We canvased Spanish-speaking neighborhoods that have literally didn't even know that, like, people coming and talking to them should be part of the common sense of how politicians have to run a campaign.

Mara Silvers That sounds like a really hopeful concession speech.

Eric Dietrich Yeah, the sentiment I heard there was, we lost this time, but look what we were able to accomplish. And by implication, think about what we could accomplish next time. And it's worth noting that another young, progressive candidate, Chris Coburn, was reelected to a commission seat in November he'd been appointed previously.

Mara Silvers What about the critique that comes from some of these young progressives? This idea that leaders like Terry are too out of touch with the reality and the hardship of young renters who really want their local leaders to deliver progress on housing?

Eric Dietrich I put that question to Terry in an interview during the campaign.

Terry Cunningham Being aware of the problems and talking about the problems and even banging the table about the problems are all important. Solving the problem requires a different skill set.

Mara Silvers This might be cynical, but it sounds a little dismissive to me. Like he's saying, I'm not here to make noise and pound the table. I'm here to come up with a real solution.

Eric Dietrich Yeah, his response is, 'well were the people who can get it done.' And so now we get to watch and see if he's right.

Mara Silvers Shared State is a production from Montana Free Press, Montana Public Radio and Yellowstone Public Radio. This episode was reported by Eric Dietrich. It was edited by Nick Mott and produced by Nicky Ouellet. I'm your host, Mara Silvers. We had editorial assistance from Corin Cates-Carney, Brad Tyer and Nadia Faulx. Fact checking by Jess Sheldahl. Our sound designer is Gabe Sweeney.