Opinion: Don’t be fooled by Mike Lee’s HOUSES Act

The HOUSES Act is a clever, insidious and thinly disguised attempt to put federal lands into the hands of the rich, greedy and well-connected, while the rest of us get screwed.

(Murice Miller | Special to The Salt Lake Tribune) Federal land just west of Green River pictured on November 25, 2020.

Mike Lee’s recent op-ed, “HOUSES Act reduces unnecessary barriers to homeownership,” claims it will solve the real problem of home affordability in Utah by putting federal lands into the hands of the state. Don’t be fooled. It won’t. People aren’t moving to rural Utah, where most of that federal land is. They are moving to urban Utah, where the jobs are. Transferring federal lands into state hands won’t change that.

The HOUSES Act has an insidious purpose. Think of Lee, Ken Ivory (R–West Jordan) and other land transfer proponents as the land-grabbing firm of Dewey, Cheat ‘em & Howe. DC&H’s legislators, lobbyists, real estate developers and lawyers know the real endgame is the eventual transfer of all public lands in Utah to the state.

DC&H has tried since the 1970s’ Sagebrush Rebellion to grab federal lands through legislation, court challenges, even violence — remember the 2016 armed standoff at Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge? Many have been turned back, including Ivory’s 2012 Transfer of Federal Lands Act which attempted to “take back” federal lands that Utah never owned in the first place.

Many Supreme Court rulings beginning with Pollard’s Lessee v Hagan (1845) and including Utah Power & Light v U.S. (1917) have consistently affirmed the federal government’s authority to hold, manage and dispose — or not dispose — of federal lands.

Enter the HOUSES Act, DC&H’s new tactic to acquire the federal land through national legislation. The Property Clause of the United States Constitution actually gives Congress the authority to retain or dispose of federal land (“...Congress shall have Power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States...”). The HOUSES Act would establish a federal legislative mechanism to grab the land DC&H couldn’t get any other way.

The party of DC&H is a master of the long game. A favorite tactic is to pass some innocuous bill that attracts little attention. Let it sit unused if necessary, until everyone forgets it. Next step: Amend it. Nothing too drastic; just dress it up to sound reasonable and make sure the real endgame is hard to discern. Step 3: Work out the kinks, amend it again, then BAM! Bust down the doors and loot the store in a classic smash-’n-grab.

The HOUSES Act will follow this playbook. I’ve carefully studied it, and there are several tells.

Tell #1: The Act seeks to amend the 1976 Federal Land Policy and Management Act. The FLPMA expressly requires the federal government to retain ownership in public lands unless “... it is determined that disposal of a particular parcel will serve the national interest.” Not just state or private interests, like one state’s housing affordability problem. Yet the HOUSES Act’s stated purpose is “to authorize the sale of certain Federal land to States and units of local government to address housing shortages, and for other purposes.”

In his op-ed, Lee only mentions the “units of local government.” He implies that only existing communities will acquire the federal land and that the transferred lands will always be adjacent to those communities. Yet the bill allows States, not just communities, to acquire the land, and not just for housing shortages, but “for other purposes.” What other purposes, exactly?

Tell #2: Lee states, “...only lands that are directly adjacent to existing sewer infrastructure could be developed.” Absolutely nothing in the bill’s language requires this. In fact, through absence of language, completely remote undeveloped land could be transferred to the State, to be then sold to developers.

Tell #3: Lee states, “If just a fraction – say, 1% of the BLM-managed acreage – was made available ... under the HOUSES Act...” then it would solve Utah’s housing affordability problem. That sounds reasonable, except nothing in his legislation would limit the amount of land that could be transferred. There is no 1% limit, or any other limit.

Tell #4: The language of the bill states that in considering a tract for sale, the Secretary (of the Interior?) “...shall not take into account whether the housing shortage could be addressed prudently or feasibly on land other than the nominated tract...” In other words, “Don’t look behind the curtain, Mr. Secretary. DC&H wants this land even though our housing shortage could be addressed with other land.”

Tell #5: Lee’s bill dictates the transfer price, rather than let free market forces govern.

The HOUSES Act is a clever, insidious and thinly disguised attempt to put federal lands into the hands of the rich, greedy and well-connected, while the rest of us get screwed.

You and I and every other American own Utah’s federal lands. The Feds hold and manage them for our collective benefit. DC&H is salivating to get their hands on that land so they can line their pockets as the developers. Do you really think DC&H is going to sell its newly-developed housing for anything less than full-bore market value?

Scott Bell

Scott Bell is a retired engineer, dedicated conservationist and passionate advocate for Utah public lands.

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