What's Your Beef? Reckoning With Change

Steve Kirchhoff

Joey Morrison’s triumphant run for mayor of Bozeman was an historic event for Bozeman. At age 28, his victory makes him one of the youngest persons ever to be seated as deputy mayor. And his no-frills, working-class background also sets him apart from the normative Bozeman politician.

Joey is a progressive, defined as a person dedicated to addressing social and political problems head-on, in the full light of day, with strong commitments to transparency and inclusion. As his candidate website put it, “the people closest to the problem are closest to the solution.”

Even though Joey did not win a majority of votes—because more people voted for John Meyer and Cyndy Andrus combined (nearly 7000) than voted for Joey (about 5400)—the runner-up, John Meyer, is also a progressive in the sense just defined. So, one could say that Joey’s victory and John Meyer’s strong showing constitute a victory for progressivism in Bozeman. This election is a damning referendum on how Bozeman city leadership conducts business. And it has been a long time coming.

The problems confronting Joey, and Bozeman citizens generally, are stubborn ones. The city’s unprecedented growth in population, together with an influx of wealthy investors to our area, have resulted in a furious growth boom and the worst housing affordability crisis in the state, with a corresponding spike in housing insecurity and homelessness.  In response to these problems, city leaders have further encouraged the building boom.

In response to these same problems, Joey Morrison formed a political coalition among people most affected by the problems. That organization, Bozeman Tenants United (BTU), emerged as a coherent and forceful advocacy group that successfully lobbied the commission to restrict certain types of short-term rentals. Short-term rentals remove properties from the long-term rental housing market and thus help to drive-up average rents. Joey and BTU brought the short-term rental issue into the public eye and provided passionate, informed testimony that resulted in the commission’s adopting new restrictions.

Though the election is over, BTU’s advocacy is still needed to educate the community on better ways to deal with housing affordability and development. Following a naive understanding of today’s cynical housing industry, city leaders have endeavored to increase housing supply in the hope of lowering housing prices. To spur housing creation, in recent years the city has been relaxing its zoning code. The upshot is this: city leaders routinely grant increased development rights to property owners, but they fail to require property owners to provide affordable housing in return.

The culminating effort in the city’s credulous vein of policy-making came to light in recent months, when the city proposed major changes to its zoning code, known as the Unified Development Code (UDC). The proposed changes to the UDC would increase housing density across all residential districts. On November 7th, however, voters defiantly declared the city’s approach is not what they want.

To be fair, the community as a whole sometimes seems split on the question of boosting density in older neighborhoods. A majority of longtime residents appear to reject the argument. However, younger citizens—many of whom helped Joey win the mayor’s seat—are less averse to additional density because they see UDC changes as a means to achieving lower-priced housing in the existing urban network—a sustainable strategy in that it reduces sprawl at the same time. The density question needs a final resolution.

In any event, the city began holding preliminary hearings on the proposed changes to the UDC during the run-up to the November election. The timing could not have been worse for the incumbent mayor or better for her opponents. Objection to the UDC proposals galvanized many citizens to oppose incumbent Mayor Andrus, who was widely considered to be too cozy with developers.

The UDC issue sent a good number of older homeowners running into the political camp of John Meyer. During his campaign, Meyer had declared that, if elected, he would put an end to luxury development, and would impose a six-month moratorium on all new development proposals. Meyer’s opposition to the UDC changes was absolute and clear.

It is well to remember in all of this wrangling about density that housing is not the only crisis Bozemanites face. While the constant, in-your-face energy of development takes center stage in our minds and feelings, the natural world—the very support for and background behind all of this energy—is also in a deep crisis.

Unfettered growth is degrading the quality of our air and land, and depleting crucial water resources. “Whether from denial, naivete or other motives, the city has not foregrounded sustainability as a principal value in all of its dealings—but in their campaigns for mayor, both Joey and John Meyer did.

The fact is, Bozeman is running out of water. Some estimates have us running short in six years. Yet, city government has so far balked at discussing and publicly confronting the choices Bozeman must make in the face of a diminishing water resource. In their campaigns, both Joey and John Meyer kept the coming water scarcity in their sights.

Happily, this election has provided Bozeman with a promising new leader in Joey Morrison. Joey is open. Joey’s instinct is to turn to Bozeman’s residents and to encourage and strengthen their political participation—not to shut them out. Joey is not a back-room dealer. He is a straightforward, honest person with a desire to work for the benefit of all and to live more sustainably on the landscape.

I believe Joey can help bring us to the next step of our reckoning. We need a reckoning. We need to make changes to our housing policies. We urgently need to make stronger commitments to a sustainable way of life—so that our children, and their children, and their children, can in turn be sustained by this place we call home.   

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