The West has an affordable housing crisis. Can public land help?

Jun 14, 2024

From Senator Mike Lee of Utah to Nevada Governor Joe Lombardo, Western politicians are calling on the federal government to sell off public lands to developers. They say there’s a housing shortage in the West, but the solutions they’re calling for don’t address the real issue: affordability. This affordable housing crisis is real and is caused by a variety of factors, including poorly regulated short-term rentals, restrictive building codes and zoning, and second home-ownership. And, as Center for Western Priorities Communications Manager Kate Groetzinger writes in a new blog post, simply freeing up public land won’t eliminate the problem.

Solving this housing affordability crisis will require first enacting policies on both the local and state level that incentivize density, affordability, transit, and give long term renters a leg up over tourists. Public land can also be utilized in a targeted manner to increase the supply of affordable housing. But this must be done thoughtfully. Selling off public land to developers without guardrails will lower the quality of life in the West, while doing nothing to solve the affordable housing shortage faced by many Westerners.

There are currently a few ways public land can be used to build housing. The first is through the one-time sale or transfer of a specified parcel of public land to a private developer or local government, as authorized by an individual act of Congress. The second is unique to Clark County, Nevada and involves the ongoing sale or transfer of public land within a specified boundary around Las Vegas, as authorized by Congress in the Southern Nevada Public Land Management Act of 1998. A third way—the long-term lease of public land to local governments for publicly-owned workforce housing—was authorized by Congress in the 2018 Farm Bill, which expired in September 2023.

Read about the pros and cons of these methods on the Westwise blog

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