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Facing housing crisis, North Slope Borough mulls building its own public housing

Jillian RogersThe Arctic Sounder

Last month, North Slope Borough Mayor Charlotte Brower announced a new initiative to help those in need of housing. The lack of housing has reached a critical level and is now a public health concern, she said.

Like many communities in the Arctic, the North Slope is challenged in the housing department. In a lot of cases, up to four generations are living under one roof in cramped conditions because there are no options for affordable housing.

The mayor brought forth a request for $20.5 million in capital funds at a borough assembly meeting a couple of weeks ago, money that would be used in Barrow and North Slope villages to build efficient and affordable public housing.

"The lack of available public housing in the North Slope has been a problem for over a decade, but recently it has reached the level of a public health crisis," said Brower in a release.

This allocation of funds is the first step, she added.

"And there are many North Slope residents who can afford to buy a home that are turned away by financial institutions because of lending criteria and other restrictions."

On June 11, the borough assembly voted unanimously to include the project as a ballot question in the October election.

The borough last built public housing in 1994 and with a growing population, communities, especially over the last 10 years, have come up dramatically short on housing.

"Right now, the real challenge is that there is just an absolute lack of public housing," said Rob Elkins, deputy director of administrations for the North Slope Borough. "Across the Slope, in any one of our villages and in Barrow, if there's a house that's fit to live in, somebody's living in there."

Elkins added that there is no one community that is particularly worse off and that the housing project will be Slope-wide.

The proposed figure -- $20.5 million -- would be used to build quality, efficient homes. One of the challenges with large-scale projects in the Arctic is the cost, Elkins said. Building materials and the cost of barging or flying materials north offers hurdles that the borough is considering.

"What the borough has to do is identify building sites, look closely at available building technology with an eye equally on quality (and) cost effectiveness so that we can build as many homes from this investment as possible," Elkins said.

The borough assembly approved a $2 million letter of intent to loan itself the $20.5 million for the housing project, providing the voters approve the ballot measure in October. In the meantime, the borough will use that $2 million to start looking at acquiring land and looking at designs for the dwellings.

The shortage stems from a lack of funds, Elkins said of the delay of new housing.

"There's only so much to go around," he said. "It started as a problem in the mid- to late '90s and then every year the problem has worsened."

The public housing crisis has been a constant topic of discussion at borough meetings over the last decade. After she was elected as mayor in 2011, Brower created the Housing Solutions Group, tasked with identifying options to address the issue of available housing. In January of this year, the borough assembly appropriated funds to begin a housing loan program. Realizing that would not be sufficient to address the critical needs of North Slope residents, Brower and Jacob Adams, the mayor's chief administrative officer, moved forward to propose the inclusion of $20.5 million in the 2014 Capital Ordinance.

In the release, the mayor noted that the proposed capital ordinance is the result of an annual planning process and reflects input from each of the North Slope Borough communities.

"Our citizens elected us to make tough decisions, and I am confident that the North Slope Borough Assembly will consider this a wise investment in the future of our communities," noted the mayor.

Before the borough turned to itself for a loan, officials looked for federal money options and available grants, added Elkins.

"Because this is rising to the level of a public health issue, they thought it was appropriate to use a portion of their bond funds to address that need," he said.

In addition to the public housing project, the borough has allotted $6 million to provide building loans to those residents who have the resources to get land and build their own homes.

That program will hopefully take effect in the next couple months, Elkins said.

"The North Slope Borough, working with other lenders, will actually issue or guarantee the construction loan that will allow for the building of those homes," Elkins said.

Once the home is built, residents will pay back the loan with a conventional mortgage to make it available for others who are building their own homes.

"Hopefully with a combination of both those projects, over the next five years we'll be able to get out from under the housing crunch we're in right now," Elkins said.

This story first appeared in The Arctic Sounder and is republished here with permission.


By JILLIAN ROGERS
Arctic Sounder