Utah Sen. Mike Lee has a bill that would let state and local governments buy federal land at a discount, to be used for the construction of affordable housing. It is, he and others say, a way to help alleviate a housing shortage that has been especially vexing in the American West, driving a surge in home prices to unprecedented, and largely unaffordable, levels.

As solutions go, this one is creative and novel, and it is worthy of serious consideration. It has the support of Utah’s other senator, Mitt Romney, and a host of local government officials in Utah. It would not affect national monuments or other sensitive public lands, and so it should not fuel long-standing political feuds over those public lands.

It would be just one tool. It would not, on its own, solve a shortage the Kem C. Gardner Public Policy Center has estimated at about 44,500 housing units in Utah, alone. But it is an idea. It’s worth considering. And it hopefully will stimulate other potential solutions.

About two-thirds of Utah is federally owned, but much of that is in rural or undeveloped areas. Salt Lake County has relatively little of it that isn’t already designated as forest or recreation land.

Along the Wasatch Front, the housing shortage could be impacted more by zoning ordinances or, as the Utah Foundation put it, the construction of more “middle housing.” This refers to “a variety of multifamily housing options focusing on neighborhood walkability and being affordable to various income levels,” a report by the nonprofit public policy organization said. This could include fourplexes, duplexes, townhomes and other multi-unit construction. 

But the problem is much more complicated than that. It has to do with supply shortages exacerbated by the pandemic, and with a shortage of construction workers. 

As a Deseret News report late last year made clear, the West’s housing shortage predates the pandemic by more than a decade, its roots running back to the great recession that began around 2008, when real estate prices temporarily crashed and construction halted. 

As Bloomberg noted, the housing market didn’t catch up with demand during the 2010s, a time during which about half as many homes were built as during the previous decade. The demand built up a steadily rising logjam in available homes, and that was especially true in Utah, which had the fastest-growing population in the nation during that decade.

The pandemic exacerbated this problem, not only with supply chain and labor problems, but with changing preferences. Many people began to work from home, creating a demand for houses that would accommodate such a lifestyle.

Now, with the Federal Reserve signaling it will continue to raise interest rates, some experts believe fewer people will enter the housing market. But in high-demand states such as Utah, that might not reduce demand.

None of this should keep Congress from considering the bill Lee is sponsoring. As the Deseret News reported this week, officials in rural areas and emerging Utah cities see it as an important way to open land to housing development. 

“If this act is passed, it would allow counties like Uintah County to provide opportunities for affordable housing to be built,” said Steve Evans, Vernal Area Chamber of Commerce Legislative Committee chairman. The St. George and Cedar City areas also could benefit from it. Significantly, the National Association of Counties endorses the bill.

And the bill would come with rules. It would require that at least 85% of the federal land purchased be used for residential housing and related community needs, and that the density be quarter-acre lots at the most. Those 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.

Those parameters ought to satisfy worries that this might be used to subsidize homes for the very rich.

David Garbett, an advocate and former candidate for Salt Lake mayor has criticized the bill, saying Lee ought to instead work to facilitate federal land swaps with state institutional trust lands, something he told KSL the senator could do without new legislation. 

Indeed, that also is a suggestion worthy of consideration. 

The West’s housing shortage is complex and difficult. It needs all the creative solutions leaders can muster.