The Movement for Housing Abundance Needs to Dig A Deeper Foundation
A judge put the kibosh on the “Montana Miracle” – for now – showing the movement for housing abundance needs to do more than pass laws; it must also remember and rearticulate the nation’s unique values.
“Big Sky Country” might not seem like a place lacking in space to live, but when it comes to housing supply, it is. A combination of limited housing supply and increasing demand over the past few years has caused mortgages and rent costs to explode. The Montana Miracle was a series of radical market-based zoning reforms proposed in 2023 that would have revolutionized the housing market by allowing denser developments, and reduced housing prices.
The TV series Yellowstone and COVID-19 made us a destination for political refugees and people looking for a trendy place to live, increasing demand by approximately 40,000 more people in only 3 years. The problem is that Montana’s cities have historically been hesitant to build outward (encroaching public lands), build up (covering the mountain views), or build more densely. Judge Salvagni’s decision to kill zoning reform centers around the idea that if someone adds a duplex to a single-family-zoned neighborhood, their neighbors are “injured” by that process. This paradigm is destructive and contrary to our historical values.
The judge’s decision to suspend the miracle reflects a cultural shift away from the values that created modernity and the great enrichment. For the next generation to access the American dream, we will have to once again prioritize the dignity of low income and young people.
Economic Historian Deirdre McCloskey’s epic Bourgeois trilogy details the fundamental cultural changes that created the West and our ‘great enrichment.’ McCloskey argues that the rise of the West hinged on a few critical ideas like “entrepreneurs aren’t suspicious upstarts” and “working people have a unique dignity worthy of respect.” Culture changed, and as a result the common law to this day is premised on the understanding that competition is no “injury.”
During the progressive era, however, America returned to the pre-enlightenment view without a clear intention to discriminate against low-income people. Progressivism’s obsession with scientific planning of society created the view that someone’s innovation, labor, or competition was an injury to others if it violated the expert plan. Inevitably this results in the people with the smallest stake from being included; in this case, the people who can’t buy a home in an expensive environment lose out to the folks who already own homes.
This change is what James Burnham called America’s counter-revolution of managers, and we can see its impact on zoning in Euclid v. Ambler Realty (1926), in which SCOTUS decided that zoning was a “proper police power” under a very broad regime. The creation of HUD attached federal funds to zoning, pushing the ideas across the nation. It’s time policymakers challenged this bankrupt principle.
Ultimately, Judge Salvagni’s decision reflects the values of the counter-revolution of managers, in which “injury” isn’t tangible as it is in common law, to be discovered on a case-by-case basis in an adversarial court process. Instead, a low income American can “injure” a neighbor simply by moving in next door, perhaps impacting their home value and upsetting city managers’ carefully made plans.
During the push to secure the Montana Miracle, I spoke in front of hundreds of conservative grassroots activists from around the state to persuade them to support this effort. I found the same two types everywhere I went: folks who opposed it because of their interest in keeping the housing supply limited and people with a coherent freedom philosophy that harkened back to the values of empowerment. The latter did not see young and low-income people as a threat to their prosperity, but as the future. This is the culture we must encourage.
This Montana lesson shows that we can’t just change the law; we must rediscover the values of empowerment; otherwise, the primary interest of the single-family “stakeholders” will continue to prevail in protecting their assets in legislatures or courts. To overcome rent-seeking, the housing reform movement must articulate the empowerment values of dignity and equality for young and low-income people into the larger culture.
The dream of home ownership and the promise of a better life can become a reality, but it will require a cultural values shift, a more robust property rights philosophy, and more than just code change. We must return to the values that created our great enrichment to enable the American dream for the next generation.