Spenard Hotel mulled as housing for the mentally ill

Rosemary Shinohara
Erik Hill

A mental health services group is considering converting a Spenard hotel to small apartments for severely mentally ill people -- an idea that disturbs some of the neighbors.

"I don't think it's a good place to put 50 mentally ill people anywhere in the city," said Nancy Lathrop, one of the critics. "Why can't they do a smaller, more supervised group?"

The Turnagain Community Council has voted to oppose the project, which is just in the feasibility-study stage right now.

Two civic leaders, hoping to prevent another protracted neighborhood battle in Anchorage, have stepped in to try to mediate.

The proposal, by Anchorage Community Mental Health Services, is to buy the Long House Alaskan Hotel on Wisconsin Street near Spenard Road and turn the hotel rooms into 47 or 48 apartments, said John Sperbeck, who works for the organization on housing and homeless services. The apartments would mostly be efficiencies, with some one-bedroom units, he said.

Vacancy rates for affordable housing in Anchorage are less than 2 percent, Sperbeck said. "And what is available is very much substandard in many cases."

"People with disabilities should not have to live in dumpy places where things don't get fixed," he said.

Nancy Burke, a senior program officer with the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority, said the authority is trying to form a partnership with Community Mental Health Services to secure housing.

If the Long House proposal works out, it would be "supported" housing -- staff would be on hand to help meet residents' needs -- but the tenants would be free to come and go, Sperbeck said.

"This is an apartment complex that's going to have pre-screened residents," said Jennifer Smerud, community relations director for Mental Health Services. "We're gunning for success."

Long House is now operating as a hotel and no negotiations to buy it are under way, said its owner, Terry Latham.

The hotel consists of three long, log-faced buildings stretched out perpendicular to Wisconsin, on the east side of the road. The buildings face a parking lot lined with evergreen trees. The hotel is across a side street from more apartments, also in long buildings.

On the opposite side of Wisconsin are single-family houses and nearby, Lake Spenard. Lathrop lives in that neighborhood. The Long House is near the boundary of the Turnagain and Spenard community councils.

The Long House is actually within the boundaries of the Spenard Council, which has held off taking a position, said council chairman Jim Bowers.

The Turnagain Council voted in March, when the members first heard about it, to oppose the project.

Turnagain Council members had a contentious meeting with representatives of the two mental health organizations that are involved, said council president Cathy Gleason.

People were against the project because of the likelihood that severely mentally ill people, who may or may not have criminal records, would be coming and going in a neighborhood with a church, a day-care facility and other homes, Gleason said.

"They were concerned about a decrease in property value," she said.

"I'm sure there's a huge need for appropriate housing," Gleason said. "Turnagain folks were questioning the rationale and appropriateness of where this should be."

Emotions were high at the March meeting and some neighbors were "being pretty rude and not respectful of what everyone was saying," Gleason said.

At the time, Anchorage Community Mental Health Services was seeking legislative funding to buy the hotel but it didn't come through. So the issue died down for a while.

But now it's back, with some different options for financing.

Burke said the Mental Health Trust Authority could use some of its principal to acquire the hotel, with the idea that rents would pay back the money. It would be a loan.

Or they could tap federal, state or tribal agencies, or private foundations for money.

The cost is unknown, Burke said. Karluk Manor, a former hotel that now houses people who were chronic, homeless alcoholics, is of similar size and cost about $4 million to convert, she said.

Anchorage Community Mental Health already operates about 300 units around town, said Sperbeck, who manages projects for the group. "We're pretty experienced and skilled in the housing realm."

If the project moves forward, Sperbeck said, "We will certainly screen (tenants) to make sure nobody presents a risk to the community."

Darrel Hess, the city ombudsman and former city homeless coordinator, saw the neighborhood dispute over the proposed housing project bubbling up. He is trying to head it off so it doesn't become a protracted, angry battle as happened with Karluk Manor -- which still has vocal opponents a year after opening.

Hess and Assemblyman Ernie Hall, who represents West Anchorage, mediated a discussion among a small group from the community councils and the mental health organizations Tuesday.

One fact that some of the critics find hard to take is that the mental health groups do not need any special government approval or public hearings or votes to change a hotel into apartments.

The area is appropriately zoned for multi-family housing, Hess said. Under the federal Fair Housing Act, local governments cannot put any special requirements on housing for people with disabilities, he said.

Having it presented as a fait accompli, "That doesn't work for me," said Bowers, the Spenard Council chairman.

Both Gleason and Bowers said many questions remain to be answered.

"We're all trying to take it one step at a time," Bowers said.

Anchorage Community Mental Health Services does want to include the community in discussions, Sperbeck said. "But we need a constructive process."

Reach Rosemary Shinohara at rshinohara@adn.com or 257-4340.