Encourage creation of granny flats to increase affordable housing

Thursday, May 9, 2019


Back in the mid-90s, Jonathan Rose — now probably the most admired “green developer” in the nation — and I tried to create an affordable neighborhood in Livingston. Our favorite site was straight across the river from downtown. It would have required a bridge, but we were pretty sure we could get that funded. But the land was too expensive.

We then looked at the land where the hospital sits today.  We had it surveyed, and the whole area is potential floodway. Given the ever more violent storms to be expected in coming years, houses there would probably be smashed into sticks and float down to Billings.

We also considered a parcel adjacent to what are now the Northside Park and Soccer Fields. We offered to develop a park there at our own expense—it was just a weed patch at the time—but ultimately that site didn’t work either.  The ground was full of bedrock, making it almost impossible to install underground utilities.  And there was the eternal rail crossing problem.

We never did find a suitable large site, and we gave up.  We probably shouldn’t have.  We should have thought smaller, and built infill housing here and there.  There are still quite a few places for that right in town.

In all cases we believed that medium density was the best way to build—at precisely the scale of the existing town of Livingston, with porches close to the street and walkable distances to stores, churches, and friends’ homes.  We also envisioned the option of “granny flats” above garages along the alleys.  They’re a great way to supplement your income, to have someone to watch over your house when you’re away, and to provide truly affordable rental housing. 

Livingston could increase its stock of affordable housing very rapidly by encouraging the creation of granny flats.  The conversion can be surprisingly affordable.  Tax breaks, and perhaps other modest incentives, would be strong motivators.

Sprawling surburban development of the kind that is choking Bozeman—and a lot of other places—is the last thing Livingston should be thinking about.  Livingston has a breathing soul, a unique character, which would be badly degraded by the traffic and inconvenience that are inevitable elements of sprawl.

Tom McNamee
San Francisco and Livingston