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The BLM isn’t onboard with Sen. Mike Lee’s proposal to sell public lands for housing

A sign identifies that travelers are ending public lands in Garfield County, Utah, Sept. 23, 2021.
Lexi Peery
A sign identifies that travelers are ending public lands in Garfield County, Utah, Sept. 23, 2021.

U.S. Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, is sponsoring a bill that would allow state and local governments to purchase federal land to build housing in an effort to curb the nation’s housing shortage.

The Helping Open Underutilized Space to Ensure Shelter Act, or HOUSES Act, grants local governments the ability to purchase federal land and land under the Bureau of Land Management below market rate.

The BLM doesn’t approve of the bill. In a Senate committee testimony published in June of this year, the agency said it opposes the act because it would be required to “sell land without sufficient evaluation of the values to the public or to future generations, or sufficient compensation to the American taxpayer.”

The federal government owns 63% of the land in Utah. Lee told the audience at an Aug. 15 event hosted by the Sutherland Institute, a Utah-based conservative-leaning think tank, that a lot of BLM land is “just sitting there” and isn’t “environmentally sensitive.”

Federally protected monuments, parks or wilderness areas are not eligible for purchase in the bill.

Lee’s proposal would amend the Federal Land Policy and Management Act to let a state or local government identify a piece of public land that could be used for housing. The Department of Interior would have to approve the selected land.

A Joint Economic Committee report on the HOUSES Act indicates opening federal land for housing development would fill roughly 35% of Utah’s housing shortage.

The report also estimated 4.7 million more Americans could afford a home as a result of the bill, with the average household spending 30% or less of their income on a mortgage or rent. An additional 21% of Utahns would be able to afford a home, according to the report.

Currently, more than 70%of Utahns are priced out of home ownership.

There’s a stipulation in the bill that requires the development of homes to be for “the people that need it,” Lee said, and not for residents looking to buy a second home, vacation home or investment property. Additionally, at least 85% of the land acquired must be used for residential purposes and related community needs like grocery stores and schools. No more than 15% of the land can accommodate commercial businesses.

The bureau said some land owned by the federal government can be sold, but it must go through a process to ensure it’s not obstructing “endangered species, cultural or historic resources, mining claims, mineral leases, rights-of-way, hazardous materials, or grazing permits.”

Per the HOUSES Act, once a tract of public land is identified by the state or local government, the Department of Interior Secretary has one year to approve the sale. If the department doesn’t meet the deadline, the land is considered sold.

The BLM takes issue with the proposed time frame because it wouldn’t allow the agency the necessary time to survey the land for potential problems or environmental review.

Additionally, the BLM points out that lands that may have been considered livable at one point may not be currently.

Some land could be considered “uneconomical” to manage. Other plots could be used for different purposes, “such as solar or wind energy development, a new conservation designation, oil and gas leasing, the listing of new threatened and endangered species, the establishment of rights-of-way, or other encumbrances.”

Lee told KUER that housing is a top priority for him this coming year. The HOUSES Act has been introduced to Congress but has not made much headway.

“Rome wasn't built in a day,” Lee said. “And a significant reform like this one won't go from introduction to enactment in a short period of time.”

Saige is a politics reporter and co-host of KUER's State Street politics podcast
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