Senator Lee’s housing bill does nothing to address affordable housing shortages
Bill would allow construction of “McMansions” and hotels on America’s public lands
Hiding behind a guise of concern for Westerners, U.S. Senator Mike Lee is using the affordable housing crisis as an excuse to advocate for selling off national public lands to the highest bidder. Sen. Lee has a long history of disdain for our national public lands and has historically advocated for transferring “garden variety [Bureau of Land Management] land” to the states, which would result in their eventual privatization.
His Helping Open Underutilized Space to Ensure Shelter—or HOUSES—Act is just another way to achieve this goal. The bill would allow local and state governments to nominate unlimited tracts of unprotected national public land to be transferred by the Interior Department to state and local governments, which could then sell the lands to private buyers to develop with minimal—and temporary—restrictions.
Lee’s bill lacks meaningful affordability and density requirements to ensure that housing built on transferred public land actually goes to those in need. The few requirements in the bill aimed at ensuring the land is used for housing are only enforceable by the federal government for 15 years, and the penalties for violating the requirements in the bill could result in a reduction of funding aimed at alleviating poverty in rural communities. Finally, the commercial allowances in the bill encourage the construction of new hotels, short-term rentals, and other overnight lodging on transferred public lands.
Below is a list of major issues with Lee’s HOUSES Act.
- The bill contains no mention of affordability. There is nothing in the bill that restricts the type of housing that can be developed—no mention of median income, rent caps, or price restrictions. The only provision in the bill restricting what can be considered housing under this program is that the buildings must be “designed for human habitation and used as a primary residence.”
- The bill lacks any meaningful lot size restriction. 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 stringent density requirement, considering the average new lot size in America is under one fifth of an acre.
- The bill allows up to 15 percent of land sold under the program to be used for purely commercial projects. It also considers a mixed-use project to be non-commercial so long as at least 50 percent of the total floor space of the property is used for residential purposes. 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 on the doorsteps of our national parks, which would only increase the need for more workforce housing in these gateway communities.
- Harsh punishments in the bill could actually exacerbate poverty in participating communities. Local governments that run afoul of any of the requirements of the program could become 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.
- The Interior Secretary’s ability to enforce land-use requirements specified in the bill expires 15 years after the date of land conveyance, meaning the properties built on conveyed lands could quickly become short-term vacation rentals or be used for non-residential uses.
- The bill also disallows the Interior Secretary from taking into account whether the housing shortage could be addressed “prudently or feasibly” on land other than the nominated tract when considering applications for public land conveyance.
Recommendations: Before taking steps to change U.S. law, local governments should make use of the tools they have under current law to address the affordable housing crisis in rural areas of the West, such as enacting maximum lot sizes, eliminating single-family zoning, incentivizing infill and transit-oriented development, and limiting and disincentivizing short-term rentals.
Affordable housing best practices advocate for developments that are near public transportation, health services, and job resources. Those considerations would make most public BLM land a bad choice for affordable housing. The limited circumstances where public lands happen to be a viable location, could be achieved through targeted swaps, as described below.
It is also important to note that the federal government currently has the ability to sell and exchange national public land. Under the Federal Land and Policy Management Act, the Bureau of Land Management has the ability to sell individual tracts of public land to private citizens in order to “serve important public objectives, such as community expansion or economic development.” The BLM can also exchange federal land for state land in order to better meet the agency’s land management goals. For example, it can exchange state land inside of national monuments for federal land elsewhere in the same state. While it’s harder for the U.S. Forest Service to sell the land it manages, it can exchange federal public land with private individuals and groups.
Finally, Congress has the ability to approve sales of federal land. For example, Congress passed the Lake Hill Administrative Site Affordable Housing Act in 2014, transferring 45 acres of land from the U.S. Forest Service to Summit County, Colorado for the purposes of constructing 436 units of workforce housing.
Each of these methods of selling or exchanging federal public land can be used to address housing shortages and has advantages over the proposition in Lee’s HOUSES Act. Sales and exchanges give the federal government the ability to carefully choose which—and how much—land is transferred. Transferring public land via individual pieces of legislation has the added benefit of allowing the federal government and local communities to decide together how that land is used. Whereas, the lax requirements in Lee’s bill could result in a proliferation of luxury developments and hotels instead of the housing that is so desperately needed in the West.