Our View: Anchorage needs to snap out of housing gridlock

Erik Hill

Anchorage residents of a certain age will remember ups and downs in the housing market here, a series that reflected the booms and busts in our economy. If you were smart and/or lucky, you weathered the roller coaster with a steady hand — you didn’t heed the advice to buy as much home as the bank would let you and you didn’t get caught in a boom market with low vacancy rates and landlords who demanded first, last, a security deposit, references and a pledge of the life of your first born.

We shot from one extreme to another. When vacancy rates were high, those same landlords might offer a month without rent and free cable TV.

Now, however, Anchorage seems stuck in a rut we haven’t seen before. It’s what community leaders and agencies are calling “housing gridlock.” We’re not building enough housing that most residents of Anchorage can afford, and further, we’re not building enough housing period.

The numbers are sobering. According to the group Housing Anchorage, you now need a six-figure income to buy the average-priced home in Anchorage. To afford a two-bedroom apartment — with a median price of $1300 a month — you need a $50,000 income.

Given Anchorage’s turn to a mostly retail economy in recent years, many residents are priced out of the market — or, if they’re ready to move up a level from where they’re living now, they find the supply isn’t there.

Try to find what we used to think of as a single-family “starter” home in Anchorage. You’ll need a time machine.

Housing Anchorage, a coalition of nonprofits and public agencies funded by the Rasmuson Foundation, says the pressing need is for multifamily housing — higher density housing that individuals, couples and families can afford, and mixed housing that’s well-planned with quality construction and public, shared amenities like gardens and playgrounds.

“Density” scares people. They think of site condos, slums and rundown apartment buildings. Anchorage has seen its share of slapdash over the years, and no one wants to do more of that. But, as Rasmuson head Diane Kaplan pointed out, density doesn’t have to mean either low quality of construction or low quality of life. Density done right may mean high quality but smaller living spaces, more building up than building out, some imaginative in-filling, subsidies, tax credits and streamlined permitting.

Streamlined does not mean lax. Permitting needs to be clear, consistent and prompt. The challenge is to meet the demand for housing in Anchorage with quality and affordability, to encourage a market rich in choice and upward mobility.

It’s complicated, because the housing gridlock is not just about housing, but also involves wages, cost of materials beyond Alaskans’ control and the availability of land. But as businesses around town are starting to report, the gridlock is discouraging some smart, capable young people from staying and contributing here. Anchorage’s erstwhile brand — “Big Wild Life” — becomes a punch line without a decent roof over your head.

Housing Anchorage reports that Anchorage will need 18,000 new housing units by 2030. At our current rate of construction we won’t reach half that. The group has begun to pull folks together to jolt our housing market out of its rut. Members have a sense of urgency, but their work will also be part of Anchorage’s long-term transformation from frontier town to well-designed city.

BOTTOM LINE: Without a healthy housing market, Anchorage faces a poorer future.