In the coming weeks, the Golden Lion Hotel in Midtown Anchorage will open as housing for people who would otherwise be sleeping in homeless shelters or on the street. The Anchorage Assembly and Mayor Dave Bronson’s administration said Tuesday they plan to spend $1 million to quickly bring it online, opening between 80 and 85 rooms to low-income tenants with disabilities and mobility impairments before the end of June.
Officials estimate they will begin moving people staying primarily at the Sullivan Arena shelter into the building as early as the first or second week of May.
The building often has been at the center of Bronson’s tenure as mayor, after he aggressively campaigned against plans to put a treatment facility there, and has repeatedly shut down efforts to open it to the homeless since taking office.
Elected leaders, public employees, and homeless service providers are racing to open up new housing as the low-barrier shelter inside the Sullivan Arena readies to shut. The original deadline for closure at the end of April, approved unanimously by the Anchorage Assembly, will be extended to try to avoid pushing hundreds onto the streets while there is still snow and chilly conditions across the city.
The Golden Lion, just off the intersection of the Seward Highway and 36th Avenue, is the latest in several hotels that have been converted into shelters or low-income housing since the COVID-19 pandemic upended the city’s approach to supportive housing. Two of those facilities, the Alex and Aviator hotels, will lose funding at the end of the month, further reducing the number of available units.
“When it comes to housing, there is no argument between the branches of government about the need,” said Assembly Member Felix Rivera, whose district covers the area around the Golden Lion. “I say this a lot and I’ll keep saying it: Housing is the solution to homelessness.”
Rivera cited a 2022 gap analysis that showed Anchorage needs 2,400 additional units to meet residents’ housing needs. Government initiatives to convert hotels have added 300 new rooms compared to a year ago, according to Rivera, who heads the Assembly’s committee on housing and homelessness.
“My sincere hope is that this collaboration on housing between the Assembly and the mayor continues. We shouldn’t try to water this down: Housing is a crisis in the municipality,” said Rivera, standing beside Bronson and Assembly Chair Suzanne LaFrance at a news conference Tuesday.
Rivera and fellow Midtown Assembly member Meg Zaletel said Tuesday they intended to introduce a budget measure to spend $250,000 in funds from the alcohol tax on costs associated with bringing the Golden Lion online. Bronson is requesting Assembly approval on an additional $750,000 in first-quarter budget revisions that will help bring the building up to code, including work on the interior electrical and sprinkler systems.
“Some of you will be surprised to see us here today today because of previous debates and a few disagreements. But effectively addressing homelessness is just too important with all these lives at stake,” Bronson said at the press conference on the 8th floor of City Hall.
Bronson’s political ascent runs on a parallel track with the Golden Lion going back to 2020. That year, a groundswell of activism against pandemic lockdown measures began attacking then-Mayor Ethan Berkowitz’s administration and the Assembly over using federal relief dollars to purchase buildings with the intent to expand social services. Bronson channeled that anger into his mayoral campaign, frequently criticizing the Assembly over its handling of pandemic emergency programs, including a plan to acquire the Golden Lion and use it as drug treatment facility, saying he would sell the building. In the nearly two years he’s been in office, the administration repeatedly produced reasons why the property was not suited to use for treatment, stonewalling overwhelming support on the Assembly to utilize an empty building the city already owns.
At Tuesday’s news conference, Bronson said opening the facility as low-income housing is not a reversal of his earlier position.
“Nothing’s changed. I campaigned on the notion it would not be a drug treatment facility. I was very explicit on that. This is not that. This is a rooming house. This is people living actually quite normally here, they just need a little bit more assistance,” Bronson said.
Under the city’s land-use code, a “rooming house” is a specific building category defined by having four or more guest rooms and collecting money from the people staying there. Permitting the Golden Lion as a “rooming house” sidesteps some of the concerns raised in 2022 memo from community members and Bronson’s then-acting municipal attorney outlining zoning and compliance obstacles to standing up a temporary shelter inside the building.
In January, the administration softened its long-held resistance and announced its intention to convert the property into housing.
Through a mix of income and social service benefits, tenants will be paying rent for their rooms.
When the municipality purchased the Golden Lion as the result of a voter-approved utility merger in 2019, one of the contract requirements was that the facility be dedicated to substance abuse treatment by 2025.
“I think we will continue to have the debate about using the former Golden Lion as treatment into the future,” Rivera said. “But for right now, the need that we know we have in the community is housing, and so that is what we are working with collaboratively with the administration to achieve. We’ll leave that other conversation about treatment to another day.”
No operator has yet been selected to run the facility, according to city homeless coordinator Alexis Johnson, though one is expected to be in place as tenants begin arriving next month.
Officials are prioritizing placing “individuals who have disabilities that limit their daily activities and mobility,” Johnson said.
Inside, the former hotel looks like it was hardly ever vacant, even as light construction work is ongoing. Each of the rooms has a bathroom, bare mattresses in big bed frames and desks and bureaus with shiny veneer. The units are not quite studio apartments: While tenants can have microwaves in their rooms, there are no kitchens. The patterned hallway carpeting and dark paint on the walls are clean and mostly unmarred. Art hangs on the walls. A visitor can hear the whine of traffic passing through the busy intersection outside. Even with some tidying and repairs outstanding, the building appears move-in ready.
“Our plan is to transport straight from Sullivan over to the Golden Lion and housing,” Johnson said.
The shelter inside Sullivan Arena is slated to close in the first part of the summer, though the exact date and structure of its demobilization are not yet finalized. Even with the Golden Lion and other converted hotels coming online, members of the administration and Assembly are forecasting many people will be camped outdoors in the coming months, and the city will lack a low-barrier shelter to take in those with nowhere else to go.