Montana needs to build housing for tomorrow’s fires and floods

PATTY HERNANDEZ

The Governor’s Housing Task Force has been tasked with an enormous task: finding solutions to build more homes and alleviate Montana’s housing crisis.

Every Montanan deserves affordable, accessible housing. Legislation that takes into account the task force’s report can help us get there.

But if we want new homes to be safe, healthy and durable, we must also ask how we can build new homes today that are ready for tomorrow’s floods, wildfires and heat waves.

When a disaster destroys homes, the cost to a community can be enormous — as we saw after last spring’s Yellowstone floods. Lives lost, livelihoods destroyed, and newly homeless families seeking shelter can push local services to the limit.

The loss of housing stock is driving up rents and falling affordability. The most vulnerable among us – the young, the old and those with illnesses or disabilities – often face the most severe consequences.

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Oregon, Colorado and California are already seeing climate risks compounding their rural and urban housing shortages.

If we don’t start building homes that can survive wildfires, floods, and extreme temperatures, we’ll only exacerbate our current housing shortage. These types of disasters are becoming increasingly frequent and destructive in Montana and will impact our housing supply and homebuyer options.

Insurance companies already see some Montana communities as too risky, increasing rates or refusing coverage altogether.

Without insurance, mortgages would be uncovered, leaving only wealthy cash buyers for homes. In other states, insurance crises are exacerbating housing crises, and bailouts are costing taxpayers billions. With the threat of wildfires and flooding increasing, Montana is on a similar path unless we act soon.

Luckily, several inexpensive solutions can protect homes from disasters. They should be incorporated into legislation and other policies that result from the Housing Task Force’s recommendations.

First, the state should help guide where new housing should (and should not) be developed. New housing should be encouraged in areas with the lowest risk of flooding and forest fires. In many cases, the tools to guide effective zoning, subdivision, and development standards are readily available.

The state recently updated wildfire risk maps for all of Montana. And in the case of flooding, a coordinated effort can easily ensure communities have access to modern risk maps with the latest climate data.

Second, the state should help build new homes to ensure homes are built to withstand disasters. Model building codes and standards can be adopted to ensure new construction is flood and wildfire resistant.

For example, in wildfire-prone areas—that’s almost all of Montana—new homes should be built with fireproof sidewalls and mesh roofs and attic vents to keep embers out. Post-fire studies and analysis have found that homes have a greater chance of surviving a forest fire when built to such standards.

In areas of increasing risk of flooding, houses can be raised and built with flood-resistant materials. Simple measures such as water alarms and sewage backstops can help reduce damage from flooding.

Finally, the state should encourage insuring existing homes against disasters. Hundreds of thousands of Montanans already live in risk areas. A government retrofit fund could help offset the cost through grants, low-interest loans, or tax breaks to strengthen our country’s resilience.

An upfront investment in home retrofits would go a long way toward reducing response and recovery costs paid by Montana’s taxpayers.

It may seem like these strategies could increase building costs and make housing less affordable, but the opposite is true: these building strategies don’t necessarily cost more, the materials are readily available, and they often have cost-saving benefits such as energy efficiency.

A study by Headwaters Economics found that the cost of wildfire-resistant structures is similar to that of traditional structures in Montana.

Thoughtful home building practices can help protect Montana families and communities at risk from natural disasters. They will also protect Montana’s valuable housing stock and affordability. Montanans deserve—and should expect—nothing less than safe, healthy, and durable housing.

It is now time to face this challenge.

Patty Hernandez is the CEO of upflow economy.

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