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Anchorage mayor eyes state land to ease housing crunch

  • Author: Devin Kelly
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published January 6, 2016

Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz wants more than two dozen parcels of state land transferred to the city for high-density housing and says the state is botching some of its homeless housing programs.

In a letter sent Wednesday afternoon to Gov. Bill Walker, Berkowitz said the transfer of "surplus or unused" state properties could help Anchorage confront an ongoing housing shortfall. On the topic of homelessness, Berkowitz also asked for more local management over rental voucher and homeless housing programs, and said the city has run into "challenges" in working with the state health department.

The letter came after a Dec. 22 meeting between the mayor and governor in Anchorage on the topic of housing and homelessness, in which Walker asked Berkowitz for specific requests.

It also came on the same day that Walker and Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott hosted a statewide housing summit at the University of Alaska Anchorage. The one-day summit brought together dozens of public and private housing leaders from around the state and was aimed at making recommendations on statewide housing issues, from veterans' and seniors' housing to problems with financing.

Ideas will be compiled into a report in the next week to be reviewed by Walker and Mallott, said Elizabeth Schultz, a Walker staffer who coordinated the conference. Schultz said the report will be made public.

Through presentations at the end of the day, a series of ideas emerged at the UAA conference: Develop a state housing trust fund, a statewide building code, a legislative committee on housing and a "roommate finder" for senior citizens. Look more closely at alternative homeownership models like the "tiny house" movement. Create a one-stop clearinghouse for information, programs and tools on housing and home finance. Compile an inventory of housing options for someone who has just been released from jail.

On the final set of notes for a group that looked at ways to encourage private housing, the words "LAND" were written in all capital letters, Tyler Robinson, development finance manager for the nonprofit Cook Inlet Housing Authority, said in his presentation. It was a reference to the declining number of vacant lots in Anchorage.

Robinson noted that the city has already engaged with the governor's office on the inventory of state lands in Anchorage.

In his letter, Berkowitz provided a list of more than 30 parcels that the city is targeting for acquisition.

Twenty-five of the parcels are either vacant, in use for industrial land or building, leased to private tenants or owned by state agencies, according to the letter. Most are between about 7,000 and 85,000 square feet. Some are parking lots for state employees in downtown Anchorage. Three parcels are in Girdwood.

The table of parcels in Berkowitz's letter suggests selling the properties to private developers, placing them on the city tax rolls. The properties could be used for private high-density housing development, Berkowitz wrote.

Berkowitz wrote that more housing could decrease the number of people who become homeless, resulting in lower costs for emergency services.

The letter from Berkowitz identified six parcels that are being used as parks, such as Point Woronzof Park and DeLong Lake Park. Chris Schutte, director of the city's Office of Economic and Community Development, said the city would continue to use the properties as parks if acquired from the state.

Berkowitz also used his letter to touch on how the state manages programs in Anchorage for housing people with severe mental health issues, addiction and other disabilities. The mayor suggested that such programs would be better administered directly by the city.

A recent partnership between the state Department of Health and Social Services and the Alaska Housing Finance Corp. to administer rental assistance vouchers for those with severe disabilities "has not worked well," Berkowitz said in his letter. He also said, of two new programs rolled out by the state Division of Behavioral Health to treat residents with severe mental illness and provide intensive case management, that "communication is inconsistent, program standards are unclear and generally this program dovetails poorly with Anchorage's needs."

Anchorage "would be better able to leverage resources with local oversight," Berkowitz said.

A state health department representative was not available for comment Wednesday afternoon. Schultz, of the governor's office, said at the Wednesday housing summit she had not yet seen the letter and couldn't comment.

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