The central Kenai Peninsula’s small low-income rental housing market grew six units larger with the recent completion of Clear Pointe, the first low-income housing building to be built in Kenai by the Homer-based not-for-profit Kenai Peninsula Housing Initiative.
With Clear Pointe’s first residents — a young family who moved in this week — unpacking their belongings upstairs, Kenai Peninsula Housing Initiative Executive Director Steve Rouse lead an open house on the new building’s ground floor Wednesday. Those attending represented the variety of organizations that had contributed, from signing the checks to moving the dirt: the Kenai City Council, which two years ago donated the building’s land; the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation, which gave grants for its fianciancing; Kenai’s Nelson Engineering, which designed Clear Pointe; and owner Conny Vann of Kasilof-based Sundance Construction, which built it.
While Rouse led tours of Clear Pointe’s handicap-accessable downstairs apartments — with wider doors and lower countertops to accomodate those in wheelchairs and strobe-light door signals for the visually impaired — Alycia Backstrom and Steven Taylor came downstairs from the two-bedroom apartment they moved into on Monday after about two months of unsuccessful searching for housing they could afford.
Before seeing Clear Pointe advertised on a bulletin board in the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation’s Soldotna office, Taylor said the best rate they’d found for a two bedroom apartment was $900 — outside their budget, he said, and “nothing this nice.” One place they’d looked had mold and most lacked amenities — with the couple’s two young children, the washer and dryer in their Clear Pointe unit are key, Taylor said. The Housing Initiative also plans to build a playground nearby.
When comparing the Clear Pointe proposal to the present local multifamily rental housing in August 2016 — a requirement for the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation’s grant funding — the real estate consultancy Novogradac found an unwelcoming market for low-income renters in the Kenai-Soldotna-Nikiski area. Multifamily rental buildings similar to Clear Pointe are relatively scarce — since 2005 the Kenai Peninsula Borough has given about 85.8 percent of its residential building permits for single-family or duplex buildings, Novogradac found. In the area west of Sterling and north of Kasilof, Novogradac found that 26.6 percent of households are renters, and a little under a third of them may be “rent overburdened,” meaning that rent consumes more than 35 percent of their annual income. Citing U.S Census Department research from 2009 to 2013, Novogradac estimated 27.9 percent of local renters fall in this category, compared to a national average for that time of 39.9 percent.
About 31 percent of local renters — or 1,123 households — meet Clear Pointe’s income requirements, which open three units to those making less than 50 percent of the area median income and three to those making 60 percent of median income. For a single person, these limits would be $27,950 or $33,540 a year, ranging up to $43,100 to $51,720 for a family of five.
In local housing complexes comparable to Clear Pointe, Novogradac found low vacancies for both income-restricted and market rate units. Another local housing complex with a similar set of income restrictions — the Kenai Housing Initiative’s Hillcrest Manor in Soldotna — had no vacancies and a waiting list.
In five comparable housing complexes renting at market rates, Novogradac found six vacant units from the total 197, and two had pending applications. Of the four market-rate rental complexes in Kenai, three were completely occupied. Local rentals remain solidly occupied throughout the season, the study found, “especially during the winter months when there is little to no turnover.”
Keeping costs down
To support its low monthly rents — ranging from $684 to $1,150, depending on income, family size, and apartment size — Clear Pointe is designed for energy efficiency and low maintenance requirements, said owner Vann of Sundance Construction, which has been building multifamily-housing since 1989 and has constructed many of the Kenai Peninsula Housing Initiative’s other projects.
Vann described the building’s exterior as “zero-maintenance.” It has no paint or exposed wood, but instead a weather-tight siding of grey-green vinyl and metal wainscoting immune to damage from weedwhackers or flung rocks. The interior is lit with long-lasting light emitting diode (LED) bulbs and insulated with triple-paned windows.
Rouse said that Kenai’s land donation, the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation’s grant funding and low-cost financing are also key to all the Housing Initiative’s low rents. Housing Initiative buildings don’t compete with the private housing market, he said, because private investors aren’t incentivized to build for the income levels his group serves.
“People say ‘you get this free money, this grant money to build housing, and you’re in competition with the private sector.’ No, we’re not in competition with the private sector, because if the private sector had to build something like this without grant money and assistance, there’s no way they’d be able to afford to rent to someone who can only pay $600 or $700 a month,” Rouse said. “It doesn’t work out that way — they’re going to lose money. A private sector investor wants to get some return. We’re filling that segment of the market that is unfilled.”
Speaking to the Kenai City Council about Clear Pointe at their Wednesday night meeting, Rouse said the council’s land donation “was the linchpin for leveraging the funds to get this done.” In June 2016 the Kenai Council donated 2.5 acres of wooded city-owned land on Redoubt Avenue to the Housing Initiative for the project that would become Clear Pointe, as well as for another six-plex of senior housing that Kenai Housing Initiative plans to build directly to the east. The Housing Initiative has an application for that project — called Kenai Meadows and similiar to the Housing Initiative’s Silverwood housing in Soldotna — pending for the Kenai Planning and Zoning Commission’s approval. Construction on Kenai Meadows is expected to start in June and be finished by February 2019.
Rouse said Clear Pointe may also expand, depending on the rental performance of the existing apartments.
“We have room for a four-plex right next door, and that will be all two bedroom units,” he said.
With these projects and others in Homer and Seward, Rouse said the Kenai Peninsula Housing Initiative has “lands and plans up to 2022.”
“After that, I’m probably going to ride off into the sunset,” Rouse said. He’s been the Housing Initiative’s executive director — its first and so far only — since it began building in 2003. The group has opened a new housing development most years since, building a total of 109 units of low-income and senior housing.