Low-Density Housing Is Class Warfare

Pick two: close to campus; cheap; well-maintained. If you’re a student at MSU looking for off-campus housing, you can’t get all three. Maybe you’re lucky and have a car, making the choice easier. If not, you have to choose between living in a large apartment or house where everything works and taking the bus, or living in a much smaller house where everything mostly works and biking or walking to class.

For such a solvable problem, an unbelievable amount of hand-wringing takes place around housing affordability. Concerned citizens and policymakers continually bemoan rising rents, then take virtually every action possible to ensure that they keep rising. One small battle in the perpetual war waged by comparatively wealthy homeowners against the poorer, renting class took place in Bozeman on April 3. The City Commission voted to delay approval of a five-story, 56-unit apartment building on the corner of Black and Olive. This development could have housed 56 couples or families in a space that would house only two if converted into detached houses. However, as with virtually every new apartment building in every city in the U.S., local residents came out to oppose the development, causing approval to stall.

In a lot so close to downtown Bozeman, it seems strange that a normal, mid-rise apartment building would even have to get approval, but the building’s design has run afoul of parking regulations. It has less than one space per living unit. So, the building needs a waiver from the city council, giving homeowners the chance to kill the project, denying the renters of Bozeman 56 additional units of affordable housing. 56 housing units may seem like a drop in the bucket in a town of 40,000, but zoning regulations and NIMBY-ism (not in my backyard) from homeowners are killing affordable housing and driving up rents across the U.S. Killing high-density housing is pure class-warfare by the rich and upper middle-class: the values of their houses keep rising, while renters are slowly priced out of homes they’ve lived in for years.

Bozeman City Commission and municipal governments across the U.S. need to reverse the paradigm: rather than requiring approval for virtually every new apartment building needing approval, local residents should have to mount a serious legal challenge if they want to kill affordable housing developments in their neighborhoods.

If Bozeman transitions toward high-density housing, it will not only become more affordable, it will become more livable. Higher-density towns attract more small businesses that provide all the necessities of life within walking distance. If the majority of the city’s population lives within a mile of Main Street, residents will have less need to drive, businesses will pivot toward serving walking customers, and parking downtown might not be the nightmare it is now.

By relaxing zoning laws to allow high-density apartment blocks virtually anywhere in town, Bozeman could become a much more affordable and livable city for both college students and the city’s working class.