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Could this proposal reduce the housing shortage in the West?

SHARE Could this proposal reduce the housing shortage in the West?
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, speaks after winning the Republican primary race during a gathering in South Jordan.

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, speaks after winning the Republican primary race during a gathering at the Awaken Event Center in South Jordan on Tuesday, June 28, 2022.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Sen. Mike Lee says his proposal to combat the housing crunch in the West could reduce shortages in several states and eliminate them altogether in others.

The Utah Republican introduced legislation earlier this year to allow state or local governments to buy parcels of federal land at a reduced price to address housing supply and affordability. The proposal would require the property be used for housing, subject to a density requirement, and protects against development of expensive second homes.

Congress’ Joint Economic Committee estimated the plan would lead to the construction of 2.7 million homes in the United States, alleviating 14% of the country’s housing shortage, Lee said. The committee, of which Lee is the ranking Republican, calculated the nationwide shortage at 20 million homes.

“We can’t solve every problem through the federal government, but this is one area where we could do a lot to solve the problem, especially in any of the states experiencing the most acute symptoms resulting from the housing shortage,” Lee said Monday as part of the Sutherland Institute’s Congressional Series.

Sutherland, a conservative public policy think tank in Salt Lake City, has or will host each member of the Utah delegation for a speech this summer.

That 14% reduction in the housing shortage would be higher in many states that have acute shortages and a lot of federal land, Lee said. It’s estimated that it would fill all or essentially all of the needs in Arizona, Nevada, Wyoming, Idaho, New Mexico and Alaska. It would substantially reduce scarcity of homes in Utah, Montana, Oregon, Washington, Colorado and California, he said.

Adding to the supply would also bring housing prices, which have soared across the country but especially in the West, under control.

Home prices in Utah increased by 24.5% from 2020 to 2021, and coupled with record inflation, the rising price of housing is making life less affordable for western families. Only Arizona and Idaho saw larger home price jumps over that period. The market has stabilized somewhat in recent months but costs remain high.

Lee called his Helping Open Underutilized Space to Ensure Shelter — or HOUSES — Act a “holistic” approach addressing multiple issues.

Lee has long argued for the state to take over management of millions of acres of federal land in Utah, and has proposed similar legislation in the past. The federal government owns more than two-thirds of the land in Utah, much of it managed by the Bureau of Land Management. 

Lands in national parks, national monuments, wilderness areas and national recreation areas would be off limits under the proposal. Lee said it would eat up only a small percentage of federal land, while making more housing available.

The bill requires that at least 85% of the acquired land be used for residential housing and related community needs at a density not less than one home per quarter-acre. Community needs would include schools, churches, grocery stores, hospitals and health clinics. Also, no more than 15% of property could be used for commercial purposes.

The homes would be built near existing communities that have access to developed water systems, Lee said.

The proceeds from the sale of the federal property would go toward national park maintenance, wildfire prevention and water systems on public lands.

Lee introduced the bill in April. Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, and Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., are co-sponsors.