There are about 640 million acres of land owned by the federal government. Most of this land is concentrated in western states: Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming. That means 28 percent of the country is public land, and it belongs to you. But it is the government that owns it.
Meanwhile, Americans are suffering under the housing crisis. When one-third of households are spending 30 percent of their income on housing and mortgages make up 70 percent of consumer debt, something has to change.
Still, the market has been unable to adjust. The supply of available homes for sale remains at historic lows. A major hurdle for home construction has been zoning laws. Often though, this is not just poor planning by local and state governments. Restrictive zoning regulations are used by existing homeowners to protect the value of their own homes.
The difficulty in reforming the housing system lies in ensuring homes are both affordable and a good investment.
A new Homestead Act
Rather than trying to exclusively micromanage the teeter-totter of the housing market in existing population centers, the U.S. should look to make better use of one of its greatest resources, its land.
If new development is concentrated in areas away from the current major population centers, new housing can be built relatively cheaply while having minimal negative impact on home values in existing local markets.
In 1862, Congress passed the Homestead Act. The act created a system where any adult citizen could receive a free parcel of federal land so long as they moved there and improved the land by building on it or farming it within five years. These land grants helped drive new settlement and development. While the original act’s efficacy was limited by the technology of the time, today such as system could be administered far more effectively using satellite technology and online marketplaces than ever before.
The Call to go West
Calls for a “New Homestead Act” have sprung up in the last several years from figures on the right. As Seth Carey wrote for The American Conservative, traditionalist conservatives and distributists know the value of “empowering American families through property and ownership.” Carey points out many of the families that benefited from the original Homestead Act maintained their land ownership and independence for decades, and it took an event as extreme as the Great Depression to displace them.
While likely apocryphal, in 1865 New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley wrote “Washington [D.C.] is not a place to live in. The rents are high, the food is bad, the dust is disgusting and the morals are deplorable. Go West, young man, go West and grow up with the country.” While the era of cowboys and gold rushes has long since closed, a new era of settlement and prosperity could be opening.
The same spirit of optimism and determination that once led Americans to “Go West” can be ours again. A generation does not need to be stuck, locked out of the prosperity that comes with owning a home. Federal land is your land, and you should own some of it.
Marcus Bridgeman is the Opinion Editor at The Collegiate Commons. In his own columns, he focuses on issues of public policy and political philosophy. Bridgeman is a native Hoosier and a law student. Featured image is from the United States Geological Survey.