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Alaska's housing stock: Report outlines high costs, overcrowding

Devin Kelly

The state housing authority released a report on Tuesday describing "severe shortcomings" in Alaska's housing stock, related to high costs, poor energy efficiency, and overcrowding.

The 1,400 page report, commissioned by the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation and authored by the Cold Climate Housing Research Center in Fairbanks, provides a detailed assessment of housing at the state, regional and community level. It analyzed information from the U.S. Census' American Community Survey, as well as professional energy audits conducted on about 30 percent of Alaska's occupied housing.

The data underscore statewide trends: housing costs more than people can comfortably afford, in part because of high energy costs, especially in rural Alaska. This trend is not new in rural Alaska, but it has become a growing problem in urban areas. The report also looked at overcrowding, which is twice the national average overall, and in some places reported to be more than 12 times the national average.

In an interview, Bryan Butcher, the CEO and executive director of Alaska Housing, said the housing assessment is meant to serve as a snapshot of what housing in Alaska looks like today, rather than a complete report.

Some of the report's key findings include:

• More than 15,000 homes in Alaska are overcrowded or severely overcrowded, and the rate of overcrowding (6 percent) is twice the national average (3.1 percent).

• More than 75,000 households are cost-burdened (spending more than 30 percent of total income on housing costs).That number is likely higher if factoring in energy cost estimates from the housing authority's database.

• Nearly 20,000 homes have a one-star energy rating, the lowest possible.

• The average housing unit uses more than twice the energy per year than an average housing unit in cold-climate regions in the lower 48.

• Air-tight homes lacking continuous ventilation pose a higher risk of problems related to moisture and indoor air-quality. Those problems affect an estimated 58 percent of occupied housing in Alaska.

Through weatherization and energy rebate programs, the housing authority has overseen the improvement of close to 40,000 homes within the last six years, using half a billion dollars in legislative appropriations, Butcher said. An additional $42.5 million has been appropriated for the upcoming fiscal year.

But despite those strides, Butcher said, a lot of work needs to be done.

"A lot of these problems don't seem to be getting any better, and we don't have any easy answers," Butcher said.

The report underscores the specific set of challenges when it comes to housing in Alaska. Compared to the rest of the country, the housing stock is more rural, and was built quickly during the oil pipeline boom of the 1970s and 1980s. On average, the unit size is smaller.

A combination of extreme cold, remote communities and the higher cost of imported fuels drives up overall energy costs. Housing units in Alaska, on average, use more than twice the total amount of energy in homes in areas defined by the federal government as "cold" or "very cold" climates, the report states -- for example, North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota. That rate is higher in the more extreme climate zones of Alaska, such as the Bering Strait.

The report ties high energy use to issues of overcrowding and cost-burdened households, particularly in rural Alaska. Statewide, 31 percent of households are considered cost-burdened, according to the report.

While lower than the national average of 37 percent, that translates to 75,000 households that may have trouble affording basic necessities like food, clothing or medical care. The housing authority believes that to be a conservative estimate, however. An analysis of energy audit information found the energy costs in parts of rural Alaska to be far higher than the estimates by the U.S. Census survey, which would translate into higher housing costs.

Higher housing costs mean more people tend to live in the same place to save money. According to the report, Alaska's levels of overcrowding have declined from historic levels. But about 6 percent of occupied housing falls under the federal U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development criteria for overcrowded housing, or more than one person per room.

That's more than twice the national average of 3.1 percent, according to the report.

"While 'overcrowding' may vary based on cultural preferences,'" the report notes, the HUD definition reflects "the level at which health and childhood education of the occupants begins to be negatively affected."

The highest rates of overcrowding are found in western and northern Alaska, the report states. At the extreme end, the Northwest Arctic Borough, which includes Kotzebue, the Bethel Census Area and the Wade Hampton Census Area, which includes Hooper Bay, reported overcrowding rates of 39 and 40 percent, more than 12 times the national average.

About 518 people live in Scammon Bay, a village in the Wade Hampton Census Area near the Bering Sea coast. Harley Sundown, assistant principal at the village school, said he's observed as many as 13 people living in a single house in the village.

He said crowded conditions can be a factor in a student's academic performance.

"There's so much traffic in some people's houses...it really does affect the way kids learn," Sundown said.

As well as helping identify future needs, Butcher said Tuesday's report should serve as a way of measuring progress. The Alaska Housing Finance Corporation previously conducted housing assessments in 1988, 1991, 2005 and 2009, using slightly different metrics such as phone surveys.

For the 2014 assessment, the housing authority reviewed census data as well as information contained in the agency's database, which included the energy cost information.

The goal is complete the studies on a more frequent basis, or every 3-5 years, Butcher said.

Readers interested in researching statistics on their own community can see the full report on the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation website.

Reach Devin Kelly at dkelly@adn.com or 257-4314.


By Devin Kelly
dkelly@adn.com