A number of residents in the ski resort town of Girdwood are working on new ideas to develop affordable housing after they successfully fought this month to stop a huge housing development led by the Municipality of Anchorage and a private developer.
A deal between Anchorage land developer Connie Yoshimura and the city’s Heritage Land Bank, Holtan Hills would have been the largest development in Girdwood in decades, creating more than 100 homes, condominiums and multifamily units northwest of Alyeska Resort.
But the Anchorage Assembly last week narrowly agreed to indefinitely postpone the project, though it had been underway for well over a year.
Now, some residents in the town of 2,000 southeast of Anchorage are considering small housing concepts that they say will be a better fit than Holtan Hills, providing units that local workers can afford.
The Girdwood Community Land Trust, which is working with other Girdwood entities to create affordable housing in town, is looking at relatively inexpensive options such as A-frame cabins and temporary dry yurts near a communal building, with kitchens and bathrooms.
“We want to talk about different choices in a way that wasn’t done with (Holtan Hills),” said Emma Kramer, a member of the land trust. “We are looking for things that can be easily developed without much infrastructure. We don’t need expensive single-family homes on a cul-de-sac.”
Like many tourist destinations nationally, Girdwood has many second homes and vacation rentals that have sharply boosted rents and home values. That has priced workers, including child care providers, firefighters and teachers, out of the housing market, residents say.
But as Girdwood residents look beyond Holtan Hills to other ways to address the town’s housing crisis, fixing the problem won’t be easy, people on all sides seem to agree.
New construction will be costly in a hard-to-build landscape without a local workforce and materials. Getting federal subsidies could be difficult for a town with a relatively high average income, though residents say many people there don’t make much money. The town will also need the support of the city’s land bank, which holds most developable land in Girdwood. And any big project will be complex, likely requiring partnerships with outside entities and new funding sources.
Several Assembly members who rejected Holtan Hills cited turmoil and turnover in Mayor Dave Bronson’s administration to argue that the city was ill-prepared to oversee the housing project. But Girdwood’s concerns about the project were also a factor — the project became a flashpoint in the community, with “HALT HOLTAN HILLS!” signs proliferating in front of homes there over the past year.
“This actually increases the urgency of Girdwood and the municipality and other partners to find a solution to our housing crisis,” said Mike Edgington, co-chair of the Girdwood Board of Supervisors, the local governing body. “We have to rebuild bridges that were potentially burned and move forward with achievable goals to get an increase in attainable housing in the next two to three years.”
Holtan Hills was largely expected to provide housing for sale at market-rate prices, which in Girdwood are far above the state average, residents say. But resort towns are unique and need a sizable number of houses available for workers because of the strong demand for housing from outside buyers, they say.
“The general solution in Anchorage is you build more housing, you help the problem,” Edgington said. “That’s not true in resort towns. It has to be targeted in some way.”
A desire to be an ‘innovator’ for housing
The Assembly recently provided Girdwood, which is part of the municipality but a 40-minute drive from Anchorage proper, with new tools to develop affordable housing.
Assembly members last week called on the land bank, at the administration’s direction, to work with Girdwood to transfer city-owned parcels to a qualified nonprofit there and develop housing that year-round residents can afford. The nonprofit could be the land trust or another entity, as well as a partner.
The Assembly also approved a measure allowing Girdwood residents to vote in April’s municipal election to expand the powers of their local government to provide services that support housing development and economic stability.
“The ball really is in their court,” said Assembly Chair Suzanne LaFrance, who represents Girdwood and other South Anchorage areas. “I’m interested to see what they’ll come up with.”
Patching up Girdwood’s reputation is key, residents say.
Assembly members who supported Holtan Hills suggested at last week’s meeting that Girdwood doesn’t want new residential development. They said the rejection of the project could have a chilling effect on new development in the town.
Assembly Vice Chair Chris Constant said at the meeting that some wealthy community members prefer to keep the housing stock limited for their financial benefit. He referred to the opposition as “NIMBYs,” or “not in my backyard” opponents. Member Austin Quinn-Davidson said the community had unrealistic expectations that Holtan Hills should solve all its housing problems, and that residents were rude and aggressive in fighting the project. Their treatment of Yoshimura was “outrageous,” she said.
“The first thing in my mind is getting the story right and repairing any damage done to our community,” said Kramer, president of the Upper Crow Creek Community Association, a neighborhood of about 35 off-grid households in Girdwood.
She and her family use solar panels and backup generators for electricity.
“I hate feeling like people see us as a group of white, privileged people. I’m white, but I have an outhouse and no running water,” said Kramer, former owner of the now-closed Java Haus bake shop at the resort.
“I really want to bring the narrative back to, ‘Hey, we’re trying to do this, so that all those who enjoy Girdwood can benefit from it,’” Kramer said.
Edgington said Girdwood has found innovative solutions to its problems, like zoning that makes duplexes an option on any residential parcel in town.
If the community in April votes for the right to expand its powers, it could have the option of raising taxes locally and finding other funding streams to provide services that support housing development, Edgington said. That could allow the local governing body to take steps like hiring consultants to study housing projects.
The expansion of authority is a step the town has already taken for police, fire and other services. It would be a first for a service area in the municipality, he said.
“We want to be an innovator across the municipality for housing,” Edgington said.
Cabins, yurts, treehouse villages
The land trust recently met with the Heritage Land Bank staff to discuss housing concepts, said Krystal Hoke, a member of the Girdwood land trust.
The community needs housing quickly, she said. Some businesses can’t fully open because they lack enough workers.
One idea is installing perhaps 30 insulated yurts on city-owned property near the library, she said. A communal building would house a shared kitchen and bathrooms for each unit, significantly reducing costs because the yurts would not have plumbing or permanent foundations.
Other quick-fix ideas being tossed around include adding spots for vans at the campground, with sewer and power hookups, or acquiring old modular military housing. A small raised village among the trees that could also be a tourist destination is another idea, like the Cannaley Treehouse Village in Toledo, Ohio, Hoke said. Small dwellings could be built on stilts among the trees, and perhaps a raised visitor center could be constructed there, too.
“It would create an iconic area and be very Girdwood-esque,” Hoke said.
More permanent housing could be built in the next three to five years on parcels that are currently city-owned, Hoke said. For that, the trust has proposed small A-frame cabins with modern amenities. The simple triangular frames would limit construction costs, Hoke said.
Girdwood includes some large, expensive homes, she said. But many residents, like her family, also enjoy living in cabins or modest dwellings, she said.
She said the community has also been collecting ideas from officials in ski resort towns in the Lower 48 on how they address their housing issues. She hopes to use Community Development Block Grants, federal funding, to support residential development in Girdwood, she said.
“As much as we are in the municipality, we are really our own town,” Kramer said. “Living here with nature instead of being in the city is what a lot of Girdwood folks appreciate.”
But the town supports development, she said.
“We are not just holding onto our trees like we don’t want to cut them,” she said.
Assembly member Randy Sulte once had a second home in Girdwood and represents the town as part of his South Anchorage district. He said the community needs to quickly update its land-use plans, an effort that’s underway.
It also needs to submit a proposal to the Heritage Land Bank for a possible land transfer.
Sulte said because Girdwood is not a disadvantaged community, tapping public funding for affordable housing will be a challenge.
Girdwood will need to find a new revenue stream to support its housing efforts, he said. That could include raising taxes locally or establishing a local carve-out from the Anchorage bed tax, he said.
If the community really wants new housing development, they need to “prove it,” he said. He said he’s concerned that Assembly colleagues might be right when they say Girdwood doesn’t want new housing.
Assembly member Meg Zaletel, representing Midtown, proposed the resolution along with LaFrance that called on the land bank to prioritize a land transfer for Girdwood housing.
She envisions the land bank and the community working together. The land bank needs to consider financial mechanisms that can support development, like possibly creating a special tax improvement district in Girdwood to support development.
“We need to see what are our tools, how can they be leveraged and is there a developer who can come in,” she said.
City officials associated with the land bank were not available for comment.
Andre Spinelli, with Spinell Homes, said any project in Girdwood will face significant challenges that could push costs much higher than the community anticipates. Developing wetlands, building new roads or going through the permitting process are some hurdles.
He said there’s demand for new housing in Girdwood, so real estate developers like him will remain interested in pursuing projects there.
Yoshimura, the longtime Anchorage real estate agent and residential land developer who led Holtan Hills, said the project was her first in a public-private partnership. It can be a complicated effort, she said.
“It’s obvious to me many factors come into play in a public-private partnership,” she said. “It’s difficult for most of us who are private developers to understand that and participate in that process.”
“I wish anyone who wants to attempt it all the good luck in the world,” she said.
Correction: A previous version of this story included a photo caption that incorrectly referred to Girdwood’s new town as its old town.