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Western U.S. Facing Major Housing Crisis

Nearly half of the land in 13 western states is owned by the U.S. Government. Some experts think that this land can be used for housing.

March 19, 2024

The Western U.S. is defined by its share of lands such as the forests, deserts, and steppes comprising the backyard.

According to the research conducted by a nonprofit group in Montana, it is revealed that the U.S. government-owned 49% of the land in 13 Western States including Hawaii and Alaska. The federal government owns just 3.5% of the land in the remainder of the country.

The West is experiencing a severe housing crisis. Out of 10 states, seven of the states with the greatest housing shortage fall on this side of the country.

The question is- Can using public lands ease the housing crisis that has originated from the region’s combination of limited housing supply and vast tracts of undeveloped land? Politicians, advocates, and numerous other academics are looking for the answer to this question.

The housing projects expected on the public lands fall into two categories:

Housing projects on state and municipal-owned land- When a municipal agency such as a school or transportation authority decides that it no longer needs a certain piece of land, then these housing projects arise. The state recently came up with a law mandating that affordable housing developers will be the first ones to get dibs on surplus land.

Housing projects on federally owned land- The housing projects on such lands can only occur when the federal agency such as the Bureau of Land Management intends to sell or trade land for development purposes. These lands are more likely to be on the outskirts of the communities because of the nature of the federal holdings.

The answer to the housing crisis in the West is more houses. An economist named Megan Lawson revealed that we have two choices. One option is to build more densely on the already available land or to come up with new areas for development. The latter option would work for urban areas as the land is scarce over there and in rural communities surrounded by public lands.

Now the question is- Will these housing projects actually boost affordability? There’s no precise answer to this as it depends on plenty of things.

Katie McKeon, a housing team attorney at the Western Center on Law & Poverty, revealed California’s updated surplus land law. She revealed how activists made use of the law to halt a market-rate development on city land, which in turn made room for the construction of two affordable housing complexes instead.

McKeon said, “It has been a really positive development. Before the law was strengthened, many jurisdictions saw land that they no longer needed as just an ability to make a lot of money”. The city officials these days need to consider the ongoing housing crisis with every sale they make.

However, the outcome of the housing projects on the federal land might not be as straightforward as expected. The increasing housing supply does not for sure result in more affordability especially in scenic places such as Colorado, Montana, or Bozeman, usually referred to as gateway communities.

The housing will often get consumed by short-term rentals or second homes if more housing is built in a popular community.

The economist, Lawson also agrees with it and said that the housing projects must tackle the affordability crisis. She is hoping that the one building in Colorado where the U.S. Forest Service leased some land to Summit County to turn that piece of land into housing for middle-income earners such as teachers or firefighters.

The housing projects on the public land make a lot of sense especially when they are close to towns and existing infrastructure.

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The content provided in this article draws inspiration and includes quotes from various reputable sources, including news articles, government data, and interviews. Affordable Housing 411 strives to ensure accuracy and credibility, but the information presented may be based on some external sources. We encourage readers to refer to the referenced materials for more in-depth insights and verification.

Shain Susan. “The Western U.S. has a major housing crisis. The solution may be hiding in plain sight”. Fast Company, March 19, 2024,
The West has a major housing crisis. The solution is in plain sight (fastcompany.com)

Last Updated: September 20, 2021