Rural Alaska

Alaska villages will build new homes and improve water and sewer systems using federal COVID-19 aid

Griffin Hagle stood near a house in Point Lay, looking at the exposed utility pipe and pilings beneath it. The rapidly warming Arctic climate has been driving ice-rich soil to subside for the past 20 years, and by 2019, previously buried pipes were sticking out from the ground stretching taller than Hagle.

Many Point Lay buildings are in disrepair, but residents still live there because a housing shortage means there aren’t any alternatives, especially amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Last month, Point Lay became one of the villages that received funds to address severe housing shortages, improve health and safety and better water and sewer infrastructure.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development last week announced that 49 tribal communities, including 18 in Alaska, would receive a total of $52 million through the Indian Community Block Grant program under the American Rescue Plan. That’s on top of the first round of funding announced in November: $74 million for 68 tribal communities, half of which are in Alaska.

“Existing conditions exacerbated the impacts of the pandemic in Indian country,” said Heidi Frechette, who works for Native American Programs in the department’s Office of Public and Indian Housing. “When you have severe overcrowding, it’s very hard to isolate folks who become COVID-positive. If you don’t have running water and indoor plumbing, it’s very hard to wash your hands frequently.”

The tribal communities are using the new funding to build new homes, clinics and shelters to quarantine COVID-positive people. They will also use the money to improve water and sewer infrastructure, Frechette said.

“The money is really targeted to prevent, prepare for and respond to COVID-19, but we’re really seeing it used to address that, plus just the systemic ongoing needs that Indian country has had for housing and infrastructure,” she said.

Building new homes

In Northwest Alaska, six duplexes and five housing units will be built by tribes and the Taġiuġmiullu Nunamiullu Housing Authority.


“The award could not have been more welcome,” said Hagle, the housing authority’s executive director.

In Point Lay, the money will be combined with other funding to demolish a dilapidated former schoolhouse and build three new duplexes.

The schoolhouse, built in 1975 and converted to apartments, houses about 10% of Point Lay residents — 27 people, including 15 children — who “shelter there in squalor out of extreme desperation,” according to the project description. For the time of construction, these six households will move to rental housing in either Point Lay or Utqiagvik.

Hagle said that “Point Lay is, by a wide margin, the most severely overcrowded village” in the Northwest and “undoubtedly one of the most overcrowded ZIP codes in the United States.”

The rate of overcrowding in the village is more than 73%, according to the 2017 American Housing Survey.

“What people call ‘overcrowding’ in rural Alaska Native villages is an expression of what would be recognized as unsheltered homelessness in urban areas,” Hagle added.

Protecting village residents’ health

Besides building new homes, the funds will be used to build temporary shelters where COVID-positive residents can quarantine, according to HUD. For example, Allakaket will construct five units to provide temporary shelter, and the Nulato community will renovate the former National Guard Armory to provide space for quarantining.

The grant program also supports water and sanitation projects in remote Alaska Native communities, helping residents have “safe, sustainable piped water and reliable sewer services,” said David Beveridge with the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, which serves several communities that will receive the funding.

From providing drinking water for the first time to Lime residents to protecting Kwethluk’s water source from river erosion, Alaska villages will use funds to improve safety and health of their community members, Beveridge said.

“The utilities provide safe drinking water to the homes and safe wastewater disposal, enabling residents to follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance for stopping the spread of germs by frequently washing hands,” Beveridge said. “Piped water and sewer services provide proven health benefits to residents by lowering the incidence of gastrointestinal, pulmonary and skin infections.”

In Koliganek, the community will repair the wastewater lagoon “to ensure that the wastewater is not leaking into the Nikolai Creek, where children are known to play,” Beveridge said. The village will also help replace a wastewater lift station “that was leaking raw sewage onto the shores of the Nushagak River where residents launch their boats for subsistence activities.”

Communities such as Kokhanok, Ouzinkie, Pilot Station, Sand Point and Shishmaref will also see improvements to their water and sewer systems.

Accessing the resources

Congress allocated Indian Community Block Grant funding in several phases, Frechette said. During the initial round, the demand was so high that HUD couldn’t fund all the applications, including those in Alaska. A big portion of the current funds is granted to Alaska communities that have been on the waitlist, she said.

For example, for Point Lay, tribal housing authorities first submitted the application right when the submission window opened in June 2020. Hagle said that with a poor internet connection, it took several minutes for the application to be delivered — which was not quick enough for the village to be considered in the first round of funding.

“That was an unusually poignant illustration of how lack of broadband hurts economic development in rural Alaska,” Hagle said. “It’s crazy to think that a delay of minutes cost our villages millions for new housing.”

Frechette said that once the Department of Housing and Urban Development received more resources, it started funding the communities on the waiting list. HUD will then move to new submissions and consider providing additional funds to returning applicants after that.

The department has a total of $280 million to award through the Indian Community Block Grant program, including the $124 million already granted. More awards will be announced in the future.

“We do have a lot of resources left at the moment,” Frechette said. “Not only are these investments the right thing to do because of the trust responsibility and the treaty obligations; they’re good investments because Indian country, given the resources, can do amazing things for their communities and their people.”

Alena Naiden

Alena Naiden writes about communities in the North Slope and Northwest Arctic regions for the Arctic Sounder and ADN. Previously, she worked at the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.