Sen. Mike Lee has a novel approach to help alleviate Utah’s housing crunch while putting more of the vast amounts of federal land into local hands.

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

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

The Helping Open Underutilized Space to Ensure Shelter — or HOUSES — Act, he said, would free federal land in a responsible manner to keep the dream and promise of Utah alive. 

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. The Beehive State is also among the states with the most competitive housing markets and limited housing supply.

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, according to Lee. Only Arizona and Idaho saw larger home price jumps over that period.

Lands in national monuments, wilderness areas and national recreation areas would be off limits under the proposal.

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, and Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., are co-sponsors of the bill.

“We must make finding and affording houses more accessible for everyone,” Romney said in a statement. “By increasing the amount of federal land that can be used for housing development — ranging from single-family homes to low-income housing and apartments — our legislation will start to address our state’s housing shortages.”

Barrasso said as more people move to places like Wyoming, the growing communities need options to expand housing for residents. The bill, he said, would give new options to state and local governments by allowing them to buy certain lands from the federal government for residential purposes.

“This has already been happening in Nevada. It makes sense for other public lands states to have the same opportunities,” he said in a statement.

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.

Utah County Commissioner Amelia Powers Gardner said her county is facing a critical affordable housing shortage that is going to require creative and innovative solutions to solve. Lee’s bill, she said, is one solution that could actually move the needle.

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Rural areas and places outside the Wasatch front, such as rapidly growing Washington County where the median home price hit $533,000 in February, would also be targets for the legislation.

Washington City Councilman Kurt Ivie said he supports the concept and Lee’s bill is good policy.

“Housing is quickly becoming unaffordable and unattainable for many of our residents. We need to find solutions that will allow the middle class to thrive in Washington City,” Ivie said in a statement.

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Steve Evans, Vernal Area Chamber of Commerce Legislative Committee chairman, said like the rest of Utah, Uintah County has a severe shortage of affordable housing.

“Much of the area in Uintah County is under BLM jurisdiction and many of these large tracts of land are not usable for recreation or other public uses,” he said in a statement. “If this act is passed, it would allow counties like Uintah County to provide opportunities for affordable housing to be built.”

Christopher McCormick, president and CEO of the Cedar City Chamber of Commerce, said the plan is not only good for Utah, but the nation as a whole, as housing is becoming a nationwide problem.

The National Association of Counties also supports the bill.

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