A bit of relief is on its way for the tight housing market in Utqiaġvik.
Eight duplexes are under construction this winter, on track to be open for rent by summer.
"Housing has not grown with the population here in town," said Marie Carroll, president and CEO of the Arctic Slope Native Association.
ASNA, which runs Samuel Simmonds Memorial Hospital, is just shy of a year into the project, which it hopes will relieve pressure on rentals in town while providing reliable accommodations for employees.
"We have housing shortages here, so it's been difficult to find housing for new employees," said Carroll. "We've been in situations where we don't know if we should hire now or wait until we can find a place for them. When it got to that point, I knew we had to try our best to get housing that can meet the needs of our staffing levels."
Once the duplexes — a total of 16 housing units — are completed, ASNA hopes to give up some private leases in town.
"Housing is so critical to us," said Luke Welles, vice president of finance for ASNA, who oversees the construction division. "We are currently leasing 50 housing units in town at an average rental price of $2,150 a month. We're going to bring these units in right around $360 a square foot, and so our cost of ownership combined with interest rates so low, runs out to $1,550 a month."
He estimates the cost of maintaining the units will also go down because of the way they are being constructed. On top of that, one of the greatest current challenges of hiring and retaining new employees is the unpredictable quantity and quality of privately-owned housing.
"So, no matter how you slice it or dice it, our maintenance costs go down, our cost of ownership goes down and it's a good use of capital that we have because it's an expense that we have to have in order to have staff," said Welles. "On every front right now, it makes sense for us because we're able to invest in ourselves."
Each of the housing units, two per structure, will have three bedrooms and one bathroom, along with a kitchen and living room which altogether come in at 1,200 square feet.
The buildings' pilings were specially designed in-house to cope with changes in ground stability.
"Never before have they had to worry about frost-heaving here in Barrow, but as things are warming up, I just see the day coming when we are going to have a frost-heaving problem," Welles said. "If you're talking about a true warming of the Arctic, this is a very real thing we're having to do and think about now that we've never had to before."
The piling caps were designed locally and manufactured at a machine shop in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough. They are able to be moved up and down, 16 inches in either direction.
"Back in May we got pilings in the ground and we've been working up from there," said Jack Leibach, one of the project managers from the Mat-Su Valley working under local Construction Manager Josiah Patkotak. "Logistics and everything else just being so remote has been a little bit of a challenge but all in all I feel like we're cruising right along."
Patkotak's crew is made up of 11 locally-hired workers, along with a journeyman electrician and two master carpenters.
"We're all really excited," said carpenter Lee Suvlu. "We all enjoy being around each other. We're all around the same age. A couple of us have past experience on the Native Village of Barrow project. We've got good camaraderie."
For fellow carpenter Clifford Benson, an all-local crew just makes sense for a project of this magnitude.
"Ever since I was a young boy, I've always built stuff with my grandfather. He showed me woodwork, building cabins, building sleds, building stuff out of wood," Benson said. "Here, we all help out. We all have different levels of construction experience under our belts and we just all try to build [the less experienced people] up to where they'll be able to be carpenters some day. Being local we all know each other and we all have the same mindset of helping the local community out. I think it's just easier to get along."
It's also stable work through the winter, he explained.
"It helps with the local economy, keeping all the dollars here in town and it helps with all of our families at home," he said.
That's one of the reasons the project has been a win-win, Welles said. Not only will the end result open housing in town, the process is good for the community.
"We're able to take a young crew and get them trained, showing them on-the-job training for carpentry and other skill sets. It's great doing it all in-house," he said.
This story first appeared in The Arctic Sounder and is republished here with permission.