Compass: Housing shortage? Let's define terms and clarify needs

Responding to recent articles about a housing shortage in Anchorage: If we are to make progress, we must clarify. Homelessness and affordability require entirely different responses and they are only two of many aspects of the "housing problem."

Homelessness is not about the availability or cost of housing. It is about domestic violence, alternative lifestyle choices, mental illness and geographical or cultural dislocation. Providing shelter for all is a minimum requirement in a civilized society, especially one in the far north. Providing shelter does not make for a home.

According to a Daily News article from March 9, businesses say that the cost of housing is making it hard for them to attract employees. Anchorage homeowners might instead suggest that employers are not paying enough to allow buyers to purchase their homes at a reasonable price. Comparisons of income to housing cost must be looked at in both directions. We must not immediately assume that the problem is the cost of the housing rather than the level of income.

From the same article, "when it comes to housing, Anchorage is the 20th most expensive city in the United States" It's surprising that it is not in the top five. We must build the most expensive homes in the country because of our climate and earthquakes. Excepting sand, gravel and a few ornamental items, our construction materials arrive by ship, train and truck from the Lower 48. Only Hawaii absorbs a higher freight cost. Our developers and builders have the advantage of an isolated market. We can't move out to Issaquah or import builders from the east side of the Cascades. It would be valuable to determine why we are only 20th.

One reason might be our relatively lax permit enforcement. Many of those clamoring for reform are actually looking for ways to avoid following the rules. We remain a group of country folks forced by cost and climate to live in what looks like a city. Permit process reform requires first the development of a communitarian consensus; an agreement that some rules are necessary and that we are all fully willing to follow them.

Leaving the sociological issues to others, how can we narrow the gap between cost and the ability to pay?

1. Reduce the stigma of renting. Renters don't have to live in substandard housing. Both aging and transience suggest an increasing percentage of rentals.

2. Reduce the cost of construction by making everything smaller. We could all stand to clean out our closets and garages.

3. Further reduce the cost of construction. Exterior floors, walls and roofs and their components are the sources of greater construction cost in Anchorage. Townhouses and other forms of attached dwellings can significantly reduce the ratio of floor space to exterior surface.

4. Increase density. Greater density can be achieved without sacrificing value and can result in significant reductions in the cost of roads, utilities and ongoing public services.

5. Provide public investment and require that some of the profits thereby enabled be returned and reinvested.

6. Increase home-building competition by raising our regulatory standards, aligning them with practices in the Lower 48, thus enticing large outside builders into our market.

7. Increase competition in the home-building industry by wooing more carpenters, plumbers, electricians, etc., to Anchorage. Property tax credits for homeowner-driven construction would increase the likelihood of remodels and additions and increase the number of construction industry small businesses.

The article on March 9 featured a couple with two young children apparently having trouble keeping the kids' toys out of the living room of their three bedroom house. They think the solution is a bigger house and feel they are being forced to spend more than they can afford to achieve that solution. To combat the effects of old age, I feel that I should spend half of the year in Maui. I hope the public, through the government or otherwise, can help me out with this eminently public concern.

We must clarify what we are talking about before we can improve access to quality housing for everyone in Anchorage.

Mike Mense is an Anchorage architect.