Anchorage Assembly expands where homeless shelters can be located and adds licensing requirement

The Anchorage Assembly on Tuesday passed a pair of ordinances making big changes to how the city handles homelessness.

One ordinance expands where homeless shelters can be located to include areas zoned “B-3″ business districts.

The other ordinance levies a licensing requirement on homeless shelter providers. Officials say it is an effort to reduce harmful impacts to nearby neighborhoods and that it creates a route for a better public process when problems do arise.

Both ordinances passed in an 8-2 vote after a slew of amendments. Assembly members from Eagle River-Chugiak, Jamie Allard and Crystal Kennedy, voted against them.

The legislation comes as Anchorage officials seek new ways to address the city’s persistent homelessness problem, which has worsened dramatically since the pandemic began.

Still, both ordinances have drawn opposition. Many residents have said they are worried that the expansion of available lands for shelters will impact their neighborhoods. And a number of homeless service providers have said that the licensing requirement will burden existing shelters and may deter new shelters from being created.

[Anchorage is again considering changing where homeless shelters are allowed in the city — and adding a license requirement]

It also comes just before Mayor-elect Dave Bronson takes office. He recently rolled out a plan to build a large homeless shelter and “navigation center” in East Anchorage as part of his own plan to address homelessness.

Suzanne LaFrance, chair of the Assembly, said in an interview that the two ordinances do not affect Bronson’s plan. They give the city more options and tools in dealing with homelessness, she said.

“It mirrors some of the practices in the Lower 48 when it comes to having shelters in commercial areas on bus lines and facilitates smaller operations, and it also will more easily enable the expansion of some services,” she said.

Shelter licensing requirement

Homeless shelters will be required to obtain a license from the city beginning in 2023. Officials say it will give the city more oversight and the ability to shut down shelters if they have a large negative impact on nearby areas.

Assembly member John Weddleton, a sponsor of the ordinance, has repeatedly pointed to issues of crime and loitering outside the Brother Francis Shelter near downtown as a reason to support it.

“This gives us a tool,” Weddleton said. “Because we absolutely cannot ever do to a neighborhood or an area what happened down to Third Avenue. That is absolutely wrong. And would I shut down a shelter to prevent that? I would absolutely do it. I would do it without pause. This gives us the ability to do that.”

Still, other Assembly members said they were concerned about possible unintended consequences of the ordinance on the city’s existing homeless shelters, which city officials say are running with little negative impact on neighbors.

Kennedy, who voted against it, said it is putting shelters at a disadvantage.

A section of the ordinance says that the city will enforce laws that deal with loitering, soliciting and unauthorized camping near shelters -- but it has to have the resources to do that, she said.

“So it’s like we’re forcing compliance on shelters, but there’s no way that the municipality can afford, I think, at this point to uphold its end of the bargain,” she said.

Assembly member Kameron Perez-Verdia said he “reluctantly” voted yes because the Assembly can still make tweaks and changes to the new city code as it gets more feedback from shelter providers and neighborhoods on how to make it better. He also said he would have preferred to wait to pass it until the incoming Bronson administration could provide input.

“I hope that there’s more conversation about how to continue to improve this so that it does both — protects neighborhoods and ensures that we’re providing high-quality service to the most vulnerable in our city,” Perez-Verdia said.

Expanding where shelters can be

Previously, shelters could be located only on the more scarce “public lands and institutions” areas. Now, they will be allowed in B-3 areas, which are scattered throughout Anchorage, with the largest number in Midtown.

Still, “this is not the end of the public process,” said Assembly member Meg Zaletel, a sponsor of the ordinance. A homeless shelter must still get a conditional use permit to be in a B-3 zone, she said.

Before passing the ordinance, the Assembly amended it to limit the size of the shelters in business areas. Overnight shelters can house only 150 people.

A larger shelter could still be created, Zaletel said. If any proposed shelter intends to house more than 150 individuals, it will have to seek a variance, she said.

Larger shelters would have to show there would be no negative impacts to the neighborhood and that the site is appropriate for housing that many people, she said.

Last summer, a similar ordinance that proposed allowing homeless shelters in B-3 areas drew sharp opposition from many residents concerned that new shelters would lead to increases in crime, loitering and decreases to property values in their neighborhoods. The Assembly postponed making the land use changes at the time.

The ordinance that passed Tuesday has also drawn attention from community members and elicited debate over the future of homeless shelters in Anchorage.

Earlier this year, the Sand Lake Community Council voted to oppose the land use changes, Perez-Verdia said. Two other community councils, Fairview and Abbott Loop, have passed resolutions supporting the changes.

Sand Lake’s vote was not a formal resolution, but instead a “sense of the SLCC” vote,” its president, Parker Haymans, said by email.

Assembly member Weddleton said his support of the changes hinged largely on the protections for neighborhoods outlined in the shelter licensing ordinance. Many residents fear homeless shelters will be a blight in their neighborhood -- but it doesn’t have to be that way, Weddleton said.

“We’re not bringing something horrible to your neighborhood. What we’re bringing is hope to your neighborhood,” Weddleton said. “If you’re in a neighborhood that has lots of homeless in it, wouldn’t be nice for them to have a place to go that’s not your doorway, your sidewalk? But somewhere that works well for them and works well for you?”

[Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly said that Sand Lake Community Council passed a resolution against the land use change ordinance. It took an informal vote against the ordinance.]