Western leaders embrace radical land-transfer idea in misguided attempt to solve housing crisis

Western lawmakers and leaders are rallying behind a disingenuous argument to solve the housing affordability crisis by privatizing public lands.

At a recent town hall meeting, Harriet Hageman, Wyoming’s new congresswoman, mentioned using public lands to solve Teton County’s housing crisis. Nevada Governor Joe Lombardo has embraced the idea, calling for a “timely release” of Bureau of Land Management lands. Colorado Governor Jared Polis has also floated the concept, saying, “The state of Colorado certainly owns some; the federal government owns even more in our state.

Official photo for Representative Harriet Hageman of Wyoming.
Official photo for Representative Harriet Hageman of Wyoming.

But we want to aggressively look at where we have land that can be better used for housing rather than sitting empty or a parking lot.” And finally, the Western Governors’ Association, chaired by Polis, includes language in its 2023 housing policy resolution requesting Congress make transferring federal land to local governments easier.

 

U.S. Senator Mike Lee introduced legislation last Congress to sell national public lands off to the highest bidder, a proposal that would do nothing to solve the housing crisis. Lee is likely to reintroduce his bill again in this Congress, in line with these misguided calls from Western leaders. Sen. Lee has a long history of disdain for our national public lands and has historically advocated for transferring “garden variety [Bureau of Land Management] land” to the states, which would likely result in their eventual privatization.

Lee’s Helping Open Underutilized Space to Ensure Shelter—or HOUSES—Act is another way to achieve this goal. The bill would allow local and state governments to nominate unlimited tracts of unprotected national public land to be transferred by the Interior Department to state and local governments, which could then sell the lands to private buyers to develop with minimal—and temporary—restrictions.

Sen. Lee’s bill lacks meaningful affordability and density requirements to ensure that housing built on transferred public land goes to those in need. The few provisions in the bill aimed at ensuring the land is used for housing are only enforceable by the federal government for 15 years, and the penalties for violating the requirements in the bill could result in a reduction of funding to alleviate poverty in rural communities. Finally, the commercial allowances in the bill encourage the construction of new hotels, short-term rentals, and other overnight lodgings on transferred public lands.

Read our one-pager for a complete account of the bill’s shortcomings and information on how the federal government can currently convey land to local governments for housing development on a responsible, case-by-case basis.

The Center for Western Priorities released the following statement from Communications Manager Kate Groetzinger. 

“Western leaders who want to build housing on public lands are, at best, looking for a quick fix to a complex housing affordability crisis and, at worst, looking for a way to dispose of federal public lands that belong to all Americans.“It’s important to remember that people choose to live in the West because of our abundant public lands, and Westerners want to see these lands protected for future generations to enjoy. With outdoor recreation booming, now is the time to invest in making our public lands more accessible, not sell them off.”

Learn more:

  1. Senator Mike Lee’s ‘McMansion Subsidy Act’ will not fix affordable housing – Center for Western Priorities
  2. HOUSES Act one-pager – Center for Western Priorities
  3. State of the Rockies 2022 poll – Colorado College
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