Experts address housing challenges at daylong summit

  • By Rachel D'oro
  • Wednesday, January 6, 2016 10:08pm
  • News

ANCHORAGE — Experts from around Alaska were participating in a daylong summit Wednesday to address housing challenges in the vast state that’s facing a growing shortage of homes amid prohibitive construction costs, particularly in rural areas far off the road system.

The goal by the end of the day at the Anchorage event hosted by Gov. Bill Walker was to come up with possible solutions that are budget neutral in Alaska’s ongoing fiscal crisis. A report on the event outcome will be prepared at some point.

Walker, who said he had to leave the summit early, gave the opening speech. He told the crowd that growing the state’s housing stock will depend on finding appropriate financing and affordable land.

Walker drew applause when he said the state has a lot of land and will look at ways to make it available for housing.

“I don’t mean give it away,” Walker said. “I don’t mean just sign it over to somebody, but make it available in such a way that … housing can be developed.”

Many aging homes in the state were substandard when they were quickly built during the state’s oil boom decades ago — homes that are now drafty or moldy and exorbitantly expensive to heat. Another huge problem is overcrowding, with available housing stock virtually at zero in some communities such as Kodiak, according to Alaska Housing Finance Corp. CEO Bryan Butcher.

A 2014 housing needs assessment by his agency and others shows Alaska’s rate of overcrowding is more than twice the national average, Butcher said. More than 15,000 homes in Alaska are considered overcrowded or severely overcrowded.

“That’s just not a physical health issue,” Butcher said. “That’s a mental health issue.”

Summit participants broke into smaller groups to look at problems and possible solutions from various angles, including housing in rural Alaska, financing options, homelessness and senior housing.

Nowhere is the state’s housing crunch as challenging as rural Alaska, according to many participants.

Among barriers listed by the rural housing breakout group: Bureau of Indian Affairs trust land sitting idle because old structures have not been removed; federal income limits that are unrealistic for the state; a lack of master planning at individual villages; and the prohibitive cost of labor, supplies that have to be shipped or flown in; and logistics to develop housing in remote places.

Some participants mentioned a lack of coordination between federal, state, regional and tribal governments.

Brenda Akelkok, executive director of the Bristol Bay Housing Authority, repeated the state availability idea approached by Walker earlier.

Akelkok noted that an old state-owned airstrip is going unused in one village in her region, Manokotak, which got a new landing strip in recent years. To her way of thinking, freeing up that state land for housing would be a budget-neutral solution.

After her group broke for lunch, Akelkok said no one in Manokotak has approached the state about such a transaction. It’s a brand new idea that emerged during a community planning effort, according to Akelkok, who described the state site as having good quality gravel near existing water and sewer services.

“It seems like it would be a no-brainer,” she said.

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