The Anchorage Assembly has withdrawn a controversial plan to open the city-owned former Golden Lion Hotel as an emergency homeless shelter this winter and has instead doubled down on using the building as longer-term housing for homeless and vulnerable residents — and as soon as possible, members say.
In an 11-1 vote late Tuesday, the Assembly approved an ordinance making clear its intent to use the Midtown building as 85 rooms of leased housing for homeless and vulnerable residents. Assembly member Jamie Allard cast the sole “no” vote.
“The Golden Lion is a component of the overall plan to shelter persons experiencing or who have experienced or are in imminent danger of experiencing homelessness by providing housing units for placement of eligible persons and households,” the ordinance said.
Members also ratified, with the measure, $2.4 million that the Assembly already directed toward winter shelter under its initial plan last month, and added $1.1 million to the emergency shelter effort using alcohol tax funds.
The measure comes one day after the first snowfall and as city officials continue efforts to stand up enough emergency cold-weather shelter for dozens of homeless residents still living outside. An Anchorage law requires the city to open emergency shelter when temperatures drop to 45 degrees.
The Assembly had initially planned to use the Golden Lion building as leased housing under the emergency cold weather shelter plan it passed late last month. But Mayor Dave Bronson’s administration pushed back on that plan in a memo from city attorneys. They argued that several legal barriers prevent the city from using the building as housing under laws governing emergency winter shelter, and that, when the Assembly approved the controversial purchase of the Golden Lion in 2020, members stipulated that it could not be used for a homeless or transient shelter.
Assembly members then briefly considered passing an alternate measure, proposed by Assembly member Felix Rivera and Vice Chair Chris Constant, that may have allowed the city to circumvent that stipulation and use it this winter as a short-term emergency shelter.
Now, according to Tuesday night’s ordinance, housing in the Golden Lion will be an entirely separate effort from the city’s current emergency winter shelter operations. Assembly members plan to introduce measures to advance the project in the coming weeks.
That change is critical due to a strict legal interpretation of Title 16, the city’s laws on emergency sheltering, said Rivera, who is chair of the Committee on Housing and Homelessness.
“From the very beginning, I proposed to use the former Golden Lion as housing, not as emergency shelter,” Rivera said. “Unfortunately, things have gotten so contorted, due to various legal and other hurdles, that there is no clear or consistent message.”
During Tuesday night’s meeting, members also passed a handful of funding measures to move the city’s current emergency winter sheltering initiatives forward, approving contracts for operations and leasing of 55 rooms in the Spenard-area Alex Hotel for a non-congregate emergency shelter with double-occupancy rooms.
For the last few months, city officials have been scrambling to come up with a viable winter shelter plan. The municipality has long passed the legal deadline for providing cold-weather shelter. The push among Assembly members to stand up more emergency shelter intensified after the administration objected to opening the Golden Lion to homeless residents this winter.
Members have since pivoted from the Golden Lion toward other, more expensive options for the near term. During an emergency meeting last week, the Assembly advanced two last-minute measures in order to secure enough shelter space for at least 350 people this winter — using the Alex Hotel and allowing the city’s shelter in Sullivan Arena to increase capacity from 150 people to 200 if demand surges.
But using the city-owned Golden Lion would cost much less than paying for hotel rooms, members say.
If the city leases out units at the Golden Lion, the millions of dollars currently available to Anchorage for emergency rental assistance could help pay for much of the cost, Assembly member Meg Zaletel said. She is also the executive director of the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness.
“The municipality holds two keys to the solution right now. All we have to do is have the will to implement them,” Zaletel said.
The city originally purchased the Golden Lion to become a substance abuse treatment center as a part of a larger, controversial plan from former Mayor Ethan Berkowitz to add more homelessness and support services.
The building has since stood largely empty for two years, save for last winter, when the administration waived rent and paid the utilities while WEKA, a for-profit medical business, ran an operation there, administering costly monoclonal antibody treatments to residents.
The Golden Lion has become a flashpoint in local politics and homelessness policy, and its purchase is a frequent gripe of critics of the last administration. Bronson vocally opposed its purchase and use as a substance abuse treatment facility, and his criticisms were a rallying cry for supporters and prominent funders of his campaign for mayor.
Since his election, the mayor has blocked Assembly attempts to advance initiatives to use the building for any homeless or substance abuse treatment services.
“This is the first step to ensure clarity on what we are hoping to accomplish,” Rivera said of Tuesday’s measure. “In case anyone thinks that I’ve changed my stance on the permanent use of the former Golden Lion, I just want to be super clear — I’d like to see this asset used as a substance misuse treatment facility at some point. Until we get there — which might take a change in administration — I think using this former hotel as housing makes all the sense in the world.”
But a few recent statements from Bronson officials have indicated the mayor’s position may be shifting when it comes to using the Golden Lion. Chief of Staff Adam Trombley said the administration needs to delve into legal questions regarding landlords and tenants if the city were to operate the housing, and needs to sort land use requirements with the planning department.
“It’s certainly not a hard ‘no,’ but we would like to know some additional information from the Assembly and also from the Department of Law,” Trombley said Tuesday night.
Members’ frustrations with the Bronson administration have deepened as it has so far thwarted use of the Golden Lion this winter and has not proposed other solutions.
“I confess, I am a little bit confused about the complexity surrounding the use. I know this facility was used by a for-profit establishment, WEKA, and that did not come before the Assembly. The contract didn’t. We had no discussion about the use. We did not see the lease. And so that seemed pretty straightforward,” Assembly Chair Suzanne LaFrance said.
Assembly member Forrest Dunbar said that while he believes Trombley’s statement is not false, it “obscures a deeper reality.”
“Had this mayor wanted to use a Golden Lion a year ago, it would be in use right now. And what I see is continual foot dragging,” Dunbar said.
The Bronson administration closed the city’s former COVID-19 mass homeless shelter inside Sullivan Arena at the end of June and directed homeless residents to a far-flung campground in northeast Anchorage’s Centennial Park.
That move drew sharp criticism from Assembly members, homeless service providers and advocates, who say Bronson did not need to close the Sullivan shelter in the first place and should not have done so without alternate shelter options in place. Assembly members have also lambasted the administration for not producing a timely winter shelter plan.
Once Bronson officials did share a plan, its ideas were not viable for swift implementation, fizzling after an outpouring of community opposition to some parts and due diligence into potential costs and logistics to others.
Rivera, with the input of a community task force, then proposed the Assembly’s winter sheltering plans.
Left with few other options as the weather grew cold, the city reversed course and reopened Sullivan at the end of September as a homeless shelter, busing people to the arena from Centennial Park.
“What if Felix hadn’t done this? What if the Assembly hadn’t done what the administration should have done and stepped in and created an actual workable plan? I think we would have just had chaos, even worse than it is now,” Dunbar said.
[ADN Politics podcast: Back to the Sullivan Arena — the latest on Anchorage’s homelessness crisis]
Broad support for using the less-expensive Golden Lion has been growing among Assembly members, including more conservative members generally viewed as allies of Bronson. It’s also risen among many city residents. Frustrations amassed this summer while the building remained empty as more than 200 people lived unsheltered with few resources in wet, muddy conditions at Centennial — and as the city ceased clearing the multitude of unsanctioned homeless camps scattered through Anchorage’s green spaces because it had no shelter to direct people into.
Bronson has also pushed for the city to fast-track its construction of a 150-person shelter and navigation center in a tensioned-fabric structure in East Anchorage and to open it for partial occupancy this winter, before it is completed.
The future of that project is now tenuous and construction delayed, with the Assembly set to vote on whether to update the construction contract with $4.9 million in funding needed to continue work. Even if that is approved and work resumes, it will not be ready for partial occupancy until early next year, according to administration officials.
The mayor initially proposed the project to shelter up to a thousand people with a navigation center providing support resources onsite to help people move into supportive and permanent housing. Assembly members ultimately downsized that idea, concerned with its considerable costs and well-being of potential clients in such a large shelter.
That project is also linked to the fate of the Golden Lion, as Assembly members made its funding contingent on a firm written commitment from Bronson to pursue using the former hotel as a substance abuse treatment facility. Many members say he hasn’t met that condition, though the administration argues it did give serious consideration to the proposal.
Last month, as pressure from Assembly members to move forward continued, Bronson announced he is not considering a treatment facility in the building because of a planned $100 million state transportation project at the Seward Highway and 36th Avenue. The project is not yet funded or in the state’s transportation improvement program and is in the very beginning stages of development. In five years’ time is the earliest construction could begin, according to an Alaska Department of Transportation spokesman.
State transportation officials sent a letter to the city about the project and its potential impact on the Golden Lion in response to an inquiry in August from the mayor’s office. Officials in the letter said the project would affect the property and has a “high likelihood” of a “total take of the property.” Previous public documents on the project and several past statements from department officials indicated only the parking area would be affected.
Assembly members say they intend to dig into the state department’s sudden shift and that the Golden Lion should be used for housing and substance abuse treatment in the meantime.