Senator Mike Lee’s ‘McMansion Subsidy Act’ will not fix affordable housing

Apr 14, 2022

By Kate Groetzinger

Lee’s bill would encourage suburban sprawl on our public lands

During his time in Congress, Senator Mike Lee of Utah has made his contempt for public federal public lands clear. He likes to blame them for everything from wildfires to inadequate public education funding. This time, it’s the affordable housing crisis.

Hiding behind a guise of concern for Westerners facing soaring housing costs, Lee is proposing to sell our public lands off to the highest bidder. His Helping Open Underutilized Space to Ensure Shelter — or HOUSES — Act would allow local and state governments to nominate unlimited tracts of unprotected federal public land to be conveyed by the Interior Department to state and local governments, which can then sell the lands to developers. Lands that are protected as national parks, monuments, wildlife areas, wilderness areas and the like would not be eligible for Lee’s giveaway.

Lee has pitched this bill as a solution to the affordable housing crisis in Utah and other intermountain states, which have become increasingly popular places to live thanks to their vast and beautiful public lands. Putting aside the fact that the bill would do little to address housing issues in major metros like Salt Lake City and the fact that the current housing shortage is due largely to a lack of home construction, not land — the bill contains very few restrictions on what can be built on federal public lands that are sold off under the program.

For one, the bill contains no mention of affordability. There is absolutely nothing in this bill, which is ostensibly meant to address the issue of affordable housing, that restricts the type of housing that can be developed — no mention of median income, rent restrictions, or price restrictions. The only provision in the bill restricting what can be considered housing under this program says that the buildings must be “designed for human habitation and used as a primary residence.” As to how local governments ought to enforce this primary residence requirement, the bill is silent. Perhaps because it’s a difficult provision to enforce, as most resort communities know.

Now let’s talk about the restrictions on lot size — or lack thereof — in the bill. It specifies that the maximum lot size allowed for a single home is half an acre. It also specifies that there must be at least four houses per acre. That is not a very stringent density requirement, considering the average new lot size in America is under one fifth of an acre. Combined with a lack of any sort of affordability requirement, this is essentially an invitation to build suburban mansions on our public lands.

Equally concerning is the fact that the bill opens up 15 percent of the land sold under the program to commercial development — but it also considers any development that is at least 50 percent housing to be residential. That could feasibly result in the construction of hundreds of hotels and mixed-use buildings that will do nothing to ameliorate the housing shortages faced by rural Westerners.

Ironically, the bill could actually exacerbate the affordable housing crisis Lee pretends to care about while simultaneously doing nothing to fix it. That’s because state and local governments face harsh punishments if the developments built under the program don’t meet the cloudy requirements in the bill. These include becoming ineligible for a number of federal funding programs, including Economic Development Administration programs and community development block grant programs meant to address affordable housing and provide community services. It’s also worth noting that these penalties expire 15 years after the date of conveyance, so there is no enforcement mechanism for the bill’s requirements beyond that time. In other words, the lands Lee wants to give away could be filled with short-term vacation rentals at the doorstep of our national parks in less than two decades.

Finally, there is a proposal in play right now that could give the Utah state government the ability to develop housing on federal public land near rural communities. It’s the Bears Ears land swap, in which Utah’s state trust land administration can swap out state-owned parcels inside Bears Ears National Monument for federal lands elsewhere in the state. The swap would also bring in hundreds of thousands of dollars for Utah’s public schools, which are the beneficiary of state land trust revenues, as well as a cause Lee says he cares about. But Lee has long opposed the trade, putting his disdain for public land protection over the needs of his own constituents — not that we needed a litmus test to know whether Lee’s latest attempt to privatize public lands is sincere.

(Photo Credit: U.S. Senator Mike Lee, Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia Commons)