Assembly members propose sweeping overhaul of zoning rules to address Anchorage housing shortage

Two Anchorage Assembly members want to address the city’s housing shortage by radically overhauling its residential zoning rules.

A proposed ordinance, introduced by members Meg Zaletel and Kevin Cross, would reduce the city’s 15 residential zoning categories to two, in order to promote construction of new homes, townhouses and apartments. They say that if passed, the measure would lead to a 1 1/2-year process to alter portions of Title 21, the city’s land-use law. It sets an effective date for Jan. 1, 2025, which they say provides time to address community concerns.

Cross and an aide for Zaletel say they want to spark a public conversation about the need for swift changes to the residential zoning code.

Anchorage faces a housing crisis marked by rapidly escalating prices and very little new construction. The ordinance’s backers argue that more units will help reduce Anchorage’s population drain, improve the economy, and create denser, walkable areas with less urban sprawl.

In the pursuit of more housing, they say they want to honor the intent of community and neighborhood plans that provide local vision and guidelines for development.

They said they also want to preserve the unique character of neighborhoods by ensuring that new development fits the look and feel of existing communities.

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Critics of the measure say, if passed, it would open the door to any density of housing in the Anchorage Bowl, Eagle River and Girdwood. That means multifamily dwellings — generally everything from triplexes to apartments — could be built in areas where they are not currently allowed, including many neighborhoods where only single-family homes are permitted.

Those critics say it will hurt property values and destroy community planning standards.

“This is throwing a bomb at the nature of our neighborhoods and where we build and how we build,” said former South Anchorage Assembly member John Weddleton.

It will turn “zoning in Anchorage on its head,” defying community and neighborhood plans that don’t call for homogenous zoning, said Weddleton, a member of the Abbott Loop Community Council.

“The thrust of all these plans really is you have different kinds of zoning” for different areas, such as single-family homes in more residential areas and higher-density closer to busy streets and highways.

Weddleton and others say the Assembly has passed useful measures to spur more housing in recent months, such as removing restrictions on parking and enabling homeowners to build more accessory dwelling units.

Those steps have only “nibbled at the edges” of the city’s housing problem, said Cross, a real estate broker and Assembly member for Eagle River-Chugiak.

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Cross said it’s time, “for lack of a better term, a drastic approach” to force a conversation about the city’s restrictive land-use laws.

“We do have a significant housing problem and the cost of construction is astronomical, and it’s not getting less expensive,” Cross said. “And even though there’s fewer permits being run through the planning department, we still have a really, really long, convoluted process.”

“I know a lot of people are gonna be like, ‘oh, my God,’ I get it,” Cross said of the proposed ordinance. “Worst-case scenario, we’re forcing and shining a light on a substantive issue that most people don’t have the energy to address, because it is a big job.”

Sponsors want bold action

The measure, introduced late last month, is set for a public hearing on July 25.

Jonathan Lang, a policy aide for Zaletel and professional land surveyor, said the ordinance is designed to benefit the entire city, not any one developer.

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“If we don’t act boldly and act now, we won’t see changes that will meaningfully address the housing crisis,” Lang said.

One focus will be encouraging new development and redevelopment of old properties, in a city with little land left for new construction, Lang said.

“The intention is to honor the existing neighborhood plans,” he said.


The ordinance would divide parts of Anchorage zoned for residential use into two areas: those with city-provided plumbing, largely in the heart of the city, and less-dense areas like those near the Hillside, using wells and septic systems, Lang said.

Each zone would have a similar purpose, allowing a variety of single-family, duplex and multifamily dwellings, in combination with “a variety of compatible commercial, retail, services, or office uses,” the proposal says.

The zone with city plumbing could support denser development, like apartments. In the other zone, well and septic systems would limit the number and size of new multifamily dwellings, Lang said. Large lots, such as those near the Hillside where only one home is currently allowed, could perhaps support a few small homes, he said.

One hope is the new rules will more closely align with federal lending guidelines, making it easier to add multiple dwelling units on a single lot, Lang said.

A call for ‘thoughtful review’

Cross said Planning and Zoning Commission review would not occur before the ordinance is passed.

If the proposal is approved, the commission would be involved in the 1 1/2-year process to rewrite residential sections of Title 21, he said.

That period would also involve public input, he said.

Assembly Chair Chris Constant said the planning commission needs to weigh the potential impacts of the proposal.


“This is such a dramatic change that I support a thoughtful review,” he said. “Until we know what this will do, I’m not a supporter.”

Andre Spinelli, chair of the planning commission and co-owner of Spinell Homes, said the ordinance proposes such “radical” changes that it should be addressed by the elected Assembly, not necessarily a commission that serves by appointment.

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Spinelli said the proposal could bring positive changes if communities retain controls over development, such as architectural restrictions set by homeowners associations. “It could allow for more diverse and more accessible housing,” he said.

But there could be a downside for many, he said.

“The whole thing with zoning is protecting property values and there are probably people who will say, ‘If you build a fourplex next to me, my property values go down, and that will ruin my life,’ ” he said.

An acute shortage of new housing

The lack of accessible housing hurts the city’s economy and has contributed to rising home and rent prices, said Nolan Klouda, head of the University of Alaska Center for Economic Development.

Klouda said very few homes and apartments are built in Anchorage, thanks in part to extremely high building costs that are boosted higher by the city’s zoning rules.

Just 1.3 units are added annually for every 1,000 residents in Anchorage, compared to five units nationwide and about two statewide, he said, citing data from state agencies and the 2021 U.S. census building permit survey.

A new 2,400-square-foot home with four bedrooms and two baths costs $625,000 in Anchorage, among the most expensive in the nation, according to data Klouda recently presented to the Assembly.

The high costs have forced residents to move elsewhere for housing they can afford, including to the Wasilla-Palmer area, where homes are being built at the fastest clip in Alaska, he said.

Even amid the high prices and Anchorage’s dwindling population, the demand for housing remains strong, he said. Family sizes have gotten smaller with fewer children, so more single adults and couples need a place.


Cross said the proposal can support construction of smaller houses, duplexes and other arrangements that meet the needs of today’s smaller families, rather than just big houses on spacious lots.

“As the demographics of our community change, we need to think about how we allow for smaller houses to be built with less restrictions,” Cross said.

‘It will grab people’s attention’

Critics are wary of the proposal.

Former Assembly member Debbie Ossiander, co-chair of the Birchwood Community Council near Eagle River, called it “incredibly misguided.”

Ossiander said it will undo the rules in Title 21, the city’s land-use law, which set specific requirements in different areas, such as varying height limits and design standards for dwellings. Other rules include setbacks on lots detailing how far a dwelling must be from a neighbor, and different rules for mobile homes in different districts.

“The one-brush approach for everyone is not the right way to go,” she said.


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Ossiander helped create the rules about a decade ago, when she chaired the Assembly’s Title 21 committee. The process took about 10 years, not 1 1/2 years as the measure proposes, she said.

“It will decimate single-family home neighborhoods, to my mind,” she said. “A lot of people in this town value homogeneous single-family residential neighborhoods, and they pay money to get that. This will wipe it out and say you can have an apartment right next to a single-family home.”

“I think people will go ballistic over this,” she said.

Former South Anchorage Assembly member and state representative Jennifer Johnston also served several years on the Assembly’s Title 21 committee.

Johnston said she broadly supports fewer zoning requirements — though the details will be important. She also supports a relatively fast, 1 1/2-year process to rewrite the land-use code, she said.

The previous process implemented rules that were outdated once they went into effect, she said.

“The comprehensive plan was solving problems from the 1980s and 1990s and the market had matured beyond that,” she said. “So you were being prescriptive in a way that wasn’t necessarily forward-thinking.”

Mike Edgington, co-chair of the Girdwood Board of Supervisors, the governing body in the town of 2,000, said the proposal is a good step toward a deeper conversation.

He said Girdwood is working on rewriting its comprehensive plan. A consensus at a recent workshop called for reducing the number of residential districts to just two or three. The code designates six districts. “So independently we were on the path to a small number of zones,” he said in a text message.

Weddleton said the Assembly is already taking steps to create more housing, and huge changes aren’t necessary. He said the Assembly can take more targeted steps, such as easing the permitting process for duplexes and multifamily dwellings in certain areas. To save time in the pre-building process, the city can initiate zoning changes in select areas based on land-use plan recommendations, instead of property owners initiating that process.

Dianne Holmes, a member of the Rabbit Creek Community Council, said the proposal will hurt home values and the unique attributes of different neighborhoods. People want variety, she said. Some people want large lots in more rural areas, while some people want housing in denser, more central areas.

“It sounds like they are out to destroy neighborhoods and the variety of neighborhoods where people might want to live in various parts of their life,” she said of the proposal.

Jeannette Lee, an Alaska-based housing researcher at Sightline Institute, a nonpartisan policy think tank, said the proposal is a step forward in a conversation the whole city should be having, though she’d like to see more details about the idea.

“It will grab people’s attention in a way other changes have not done, and force Anchorage to reckon with itself when it comes to housing,” she said.

The city would benefit from a greater housing diversity and density, she said.

“If you care about equity, climate change, and a more walkable, bikeable city, more efficient land use fulfills those things,” she said. “We need right-sized and right-priced housing.”

Alex DeMarban

Alex DeMarban is a longtime Alaska journalist who covers business, the oil and gas industries and general assignments. Reach him at 907-257-4317 or