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Could federal land help satisfy Utah’s hunger for housing? Sen. Mike Lee thinks so

Homes under construction in south St. George, April 18, 2022. The region is seeing a record demand for housing.
Lexi Peery
Homes under construction in south St. George, April 18, 2022. The region is seeing a record demand for housing.

Sen. Mike Lee wants to open up federal land in the West for more housing. The Utah Republican recently introduced the Helping Open Underutilized Space to Ensure Shelter or HOUSES Act to do so.

From urban Salt Lake City to more rural Kanab, Utah is in the midst of a housing crisis. A top housing specialist at the Utah Department of Workforce Services told state lawmakers last year the affordable housing crisis won’t be solved by building more.

But Lee thinks freeing up federal land will help the shortage.

“Supply is not meeting housing demand in Utah and the federal government’s land ownership is a significant cause of our restricted housing stock,” said Lee in a press release.

The bill would allow local governments to buy federal land at a reduced price. Then a majority of the land will have to be set aside for housing and adhere to strict density requirements.

“If [communities] so desire and if there's land that makes sense, they can petition the Bureau of Land Management for certain parcels of land and then use that land to build homes on,” said Heath Hansen, Lee’s Southern Utah director at a Washington City Council meeting in March.

Environmental groups oppose the HOUSES Act. Kate Groetzinger, a communications associate with the Center for Western Priorities, sees this as a way for Lee to attack public lands. Disclosure: Groetzinger is a former KUER employee.

“It's just not a good faith attempt to solve the housing crisis or housing affordability crisis,” she said. “Anyone who has followed Mike Lee's career in the Senate knows about his disdain for federal public lands and that his main goal is to privatize public lands.”

The bill, Groetzinger said, would also encourage urban sprawl in places like southwest Utah, which is already struggling with rapid growth.

Steve Bloch, the legal director at Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, doesn’t expect Lee’s bill to go far. He said when lawmakers have tried to sell federal lands in the past, the public has risen up.

“Hunters, anglers and outdoor enthusiasts treasure our public heritage of federal land,” he said. “And selling them off here at a reduced rate is not really something that I expect to make a lot of headway.”

Lee sponsored the HOUSES Act, with Sen. Mitt Romney, R-UT, and Sen. John Barrasso, R-WY, cosponsoring.

Lexi is KUER's Southwest Bureau reporter
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