Chronic alcoholics move from street into transformed motel

Lisa Demer

Dozens of Anchorage's chronic homeless alcoholics have moved into the first real home they've known for years -- a transformed old motel on the edge of downtown called Karluk Manor.

The hard-fought residential project by Rural CAP marks Anchorage's first big step into Housing First. Under this approach, which has met success Outside, alcoholics who have lived on the streets get a long-term home whether they are ready to stop drinking or not.

And while organizers and residents are delighted Karluk Manor opened before Christmas, a private civil rights firm says a new city law that placed special conditions on it is far too onerous.

The Northern Justice Project this week challenged the law in Anchorage Superior Court, saying it discriminates against people with alcoholism, a disability under federal and state law. The lawsuit against the municipality was filed on behalf of three men, all long-term homeless alcoholics.

The suit contends developers will be deterred from creating more housing for alcoholics because of hurdles imposed by the Anchorage law for Severe Alcohol Dependent Housing, or SADH (pronounced "sad") for short.

"It's like something from 1963 Alabama to have an ordinance like that," one of the plaintiffs' lawyers, James Davis, said, paraphrasing the reaction of a Housing First leader from Seattle.

The lawsuit doesn't list specifics. But the city law passed in 2010 says places like Karluk Manor must be located at least 500 feet away from schools, parks and child care centers. It requires them to make site improvements and submit detailed management plans.

While regular apartments must make provisions for landscaping and parking, Rural CAP had to also install an elevator and heated walkway for Karluk Manor, located at Fifth Avenue and Karluk Street.

And under the terms set by the city Planning and Zoning Commission, Karluk Manor must be staffed with at least two employees around the clock and serve meals to residents seven days a week. Its original plan had been for one staff member overnight and meals five days a week.

Davis contends the special conditions for housing alcoholics are illegal. How is it different than restricting housing for other protected groups, such as African-Americans or Jewish people? he asked.

City planners say a place like Karluk Manor is by nature different from a regular apartment building. It has round-the-clock staffing and on-site meals and may offer some group programming.

It's within the norm for the city to require extra reviews for facilities that bring extra impacts, said Al Barrett, a senior planner for the municipality. For instance, a church that wants to locate in a residential neighborhood must submit a site plan, just like a private club or a gym would have to do.

City Attorney Dennis Wheeler said the lawsuit doesn't offer any specifics on how the ordinance makes it harder to develop housing for alcoholics. As the city sees it, the measure expands opportunities by laying out where and how such housing will be allowed. The Anchorage Assembly approved the measure 11-0.

"Unfortunately, this appears to be one of those situations where the plaintiffs' attorneys wanted to make a big splash and haven't attempted to work out the issues with the Municipality beforehand," Wheeler said in an email. The city is planning to meet with Northern Justice today to discuss the concerns.

At any rate, the law didn't block Rural CAP. The nonprofit agency was committed to doing whatever it took to bring people off the streets, said Melinda Freemon, Rural CAP's supportive housing director.

"I never doubted we would open Karluk Manor," Freemon said.

It was a tough fight. Nearby businesses, the Fairview Community Council and the city Planning Department all opposed it.

The city requirements did add hundreds of thousands of dollars to renovation and operational costs and delayed Karluk Manor's opening for months, Freemon said.

"So the SADH ordinance does add barriers to providing affordable housing for people with disabilities, the specific one being people with chronic alcoholism," she said.

Her organization's priority has been safety for tenants, staff and neighbors. The Karluk property has been fenced and everyone is funneled through the main entrance to keep better watch. Residents must follow house rules that limit drinking to their own rooms and put restrictions on guests.

Karluk opened Dec. 8. As of early this week, 25 men and 12 women had moved into their own efficiency apartments in what used to be Red Roof Inn.

"We're really tremendously happy with bringing in people who have been living on the streets for decades and have multiple, multiple community service (patrol) pickups and ER visits and nights at the shelter," Freemon said.

The rest of the 46 slots have people lined up, Freemon said.

The rent, including utilities and meals, is $700 a month but subsidies will cover most of it. Each resident must contribute at least $50 a month or, for people who are working, 30 percent of their income.

Bean's Cafe, the soup kitchen, is serving two meals a day for residents, Freemon said. Research shows that people will drink less if they eat well.

"We've had churches donate board games and puzzles and Christmas cookies. So the community involvement is just wonderful," she said.

Reach Lisa Demer at or 257-4390.

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