Developing Anchorage

Alaska has long been known as a place with plenty of wide-open spaces and lots of room to roam. People move here to "get away from it all," and there is an expectation that our smaller population and expansive wilderness means the ability to live without being on top of your neighbor.

But now our largest city is running out of buildable land, and finding affordable housing in Anchorage has become an issue for all demographics. As the population continues to grow, businesses, developers and other agencies are striving to resolve the problem in a way that will not only ease immediate housing shortages but facilitate a future that will keep residents happy and the economy strong.

An increasing lack of buildable land

The Petersen Group has been building single-family homes and high-quality condominiums in Anchorage since 1983, as well as working with Cook Inlet Housing Authority since 2005 to build affordable housing. Trevor Edmondson, vice president and general manager of the Petersen Group, says finding land to develop is one of Anchorage's biggest challenges.

"Lack of affordable, buildable land is an issue that is tough to overcome," Edmondson said. "Much of the current available land has poor soils and poor topography, which can add substantial cost to the infrastructure of projects, as well as significant additional time for buildings to be completed."

Brian Shelton-Kelley is the director of NeighborWorks Anchorage, an organization that helps provide housing for residents from a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds. Born and raised in Alaska, Shelton-Kelley says Anchorage and Alaska as a whole need to be proactive in creating housing. He'd like to see regulatory regimes altered to facilitate more multifamily development.

"Changes are needed in the city's Title 21 land use code, building permits and inspections need to be streamlined and better coordinated, and state local and federal funding could be better aligned," he said.

Edmondson agrees, saying that solutions to the housing shortage should be a collaborative effort of community, local agencies and government. He pointed to Anchorage Economic Development Corp.'s Live. Work. Play. initiative as one such solution. Established in 2011, Live. Work. Play. has the goal of making Anchorage the number one city in America to live, work and play by 2025. Housing is a big part of accomplishing that goal, and AEDC has collaborated with businesses and developers to start implementing some of the changes necessary to create sustainable housing plans.

"Additionally, the municipality could help develop affordable housing via tax credits and making development more affordable," Edmondson said. "We are seeing more high-density, multifamily units being built in Anchorage. The cost of these homes is being forced upward by the cost of construction, land, development and the time it takes to obtain permits."

Moreover, he added, it's time to think differently about what these new homes look like.

"Developers need to be creative with the use of land and need to work with various agencies to encourage changes to current codes, as well as going more vertical with construction of new housing to increase density and make units more affordable," Edmondson said.

New neighborhoods designed for all

NeighborWorks is the project developer for Hollybrook Terrace, a community of townhouse-style condominiums built to feel like a "neighborhood within a neighborhood." The development, designed for individuals and families of all ages, is located in Anchorage's Independence Park, an area selected for its mix of single-family homes, condominiums and affordable housing for seniors.

"A healthy, sustainable housing market is one that offers options that can accommodate a range of lifestyles and price points," Shelton-Kelley said.

It's a model that is being embraced by housing groups throughout Anchorage. Carol Gore, CEO for Cook Inlet Housing Authority, echoed Shelton-Kelley, saying housing solutions in Anchorage need to consider the needs of all residents, from young professionals to retirees.

Gore considers high-density housing a "delicate but necessary option" and says it is something Anchorage must consider.

"People in our community are seeking quality, affordable housing," Gore said. "They want choices that include quality construction, with locations close to amenities such as trails, parks, restaurants and jobs."

Currently, CIHA is in partnership with Alaska Housing Finance Corp. in developing 70 units of housing at Ridgeline Terrace and 18 units of housing at Susitna Square. Their 2015 plan includes 49 units of senior rental housing at Muldoon and DeBarr, as well as the construction of 52 units of family rental housing in the same area.

While it sounds like a lot, the joint effort falls far short of the 900 total units of housing experts say Anchorage needs to build each year in order to keep up with anticipated demand. The solution may lie, at least in part, in increasing housing density.

"Using the land we have left to provide more than the usual 'one home at a time' approach will help with affordability and will help our city both attract and retain the next generation," Gore said. "We need to engage the community and explore the tradeoffs regarding being near amenities and having more affordable housing options in exchange for closer living quarters."

It's an approach that requires some thought and planning, noted Shelton-Kelley.

"Density can work if done right. It must be appropriate in the context of community and location," he said. "Denser housing also requires a different support 'ecosystem' such as sidewalks, green space, parking, access to public transportation and mixed use areas where housing and commercial spaces co-exist."

While fenced yards and large lots are traditional selling points for local properties, Shelton-Kelley says he sees Anchorage residents' desires starting to change.

"Single-family, detached homes on 10,000-square-foot lots may be desirable to some families but may not respond to the lifestyle needs of other market segments," he said. "I see a certain maturing of the Anchorage market as part of recognition that Anchorage is becoming an increasing(ly) urban environment, and a more urban aesthetic will be in demand."

This story appeared in the March 2015 issue of 61º North Magazine. Contact 61º editor Jamie Gonzales at jgonzales@alaskadispatch.com.