Some employers in Alaska are building housing for workers, aiming to combat a severe labor shortage.
That includes Alyeska Resort in Girdwood, which is building a $6.6 million facility designed for employees in middle management, who are increasingly struggling to find affordable housing there. Elsewhere in Alaska, there are efforts to convert former military barracks and a state ferry into worker lodging.
Employers hope the new housing will help with recruitment and retention of workers while relieving pressure on extremely tight housing markets that have reduced rental options in many towns.
The labor and housing crunch has become an especially urgent issue for many communities in Alaska, intensifying during the pandemic.
“Things were bad before, but now we’re getting to desperate times,” said Krystal Hoke, a real estate agent and Girdwood resident.
Priced out in Girdwood
In Girdwood, Alyeska Resort recently broke ground on a new three-story building. It will house 120 people in about 70 studio and one-bedroom apartments, plans show.
Sacha Jurva, general manager of the Alyeska Resort, said the lack of housing has contributed to a shortage of workers at the resort, which recently opened an outdoor spa.
The new housing should increase employee longevity and help the resort attract employees, Jurva said. It’s set to open by next summer.
Residents say Girdwood’s housing and labor market have been hit by the same forces affecting many Alaska towns.
Landlords are increasingly renting to tourists through Airbnb and other websites, taking long-term rentals off the market. Soaring demand for home ownership, driven by low interest rates during the pandemic, added to the problem. Meanwhile, workers are limited across Alaska as tourism heats up, two years after unemployment shot to record-high rates during the pandemic.
Hoke said rooms rarely go up for rent in Girdwood anymore.
If they do, there’s a line of people who need it, it won’t be cheap — and the place might come without plumbing.
“Finding anything below $1,500 a month is very difficult,” Hoke said.
That’s pricing many of the town’s service workers out of the market, she said. Teachers and other professionals have also had to leave Girdwood because of the situation, said Hoke, a member of the Girdwood Land Trust, a nonprofit working on its own plan to build more housing for workers in the town.
Marco Zaccaro, a Girdwood architect whose firm is designing the Alyeska project, said it will free up rental space in Girdwood as some Alyeska workers move into the building.
Some of the town’s workforce lives in cars and tents pitched in the woods because they can’t afford a place, Zaccaro said.
The new housing will be built near the Hotel Alyeska, adjacent to the resort’s smaller workforce housing facility installed about 15 years ago, he said.
That was designed to house lower-level workers like lift attendants, he said.
The new facility will provide space for mid-level workers, like sous chefs who help manage kitchens and now also have trouble finding a place.
“Now everyone is getting hit, so this is more for mid-management,” he said. “They don’t want to live in a cabin without running water.”
A plan for barracks in Homer
In Homer, population 6,000, the lack of housing is contributing to a worker shortage that limits businesses from growing, said Brad Anderson, head of the Homer Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center.
Anchor 907, a government contracting company in Homer owned by two Navy retirees, has proposed creating housing by importing surplus military barracks from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage.
“It’s badly needed,” Anderson said. “We are approaching 300 unfilled jobs, and we don’t have any available housing.”
Michael Daniel, co-owner of Anchor 907, said the growth in vacation rentals has severely hurt the long-term rental market.
Some workers in towns are staying in sheds and trailers, he said. A cabin without plumbing was recently available for $1,100 a month, and only for six weeks.
“A yurt is going for $2,100 a month, with no running water, between June and September, on Airbnb,” he said. “It just shows you how impossible it is for workers here.”
The barracks look like small houses and are available at a steep discount, he said. About 15 years old, they come with shared bathrooms, kitchens and laundry machines.
They will accommodate 120 people, he said.
Anchor 907 plans to purchase them in the coming weeks and ship them down the highway to Homer, he said.
The company is also working to acquire vacant land, possibly from the Kenai Peninsula Borough, where they can be erected.
Daniel plans to rent them to employers, hopefully for $750 monthly or less, who can provide them to workers, he said.
“The government has spent the money on the construction and engineering costs, so we are trying to leverage that to do a good thing for the community,” he said.
Lance Prouse, owner of Captain’s Coffee Roasting Co. in Homer, said he’ll rent at least two rooms from Anchor 907 as soon as they’re ready.
He’s been wanting to expand his coffee house to sell dinners, but he can’t get enough workers because they have nowhere to live, he said. He said he lost some job candidates in the spring when their landlord turned their place into an Airbnb rental.
A Southeast village imports a man camp for seasonal workers
Nils Andreassen, head of the Alaska Municipal League representing local governments, said the labor and housing crunch are top priorities for dozens of Alaska communities.
“Everyone I talk to, it seems to be on their list,” he said, with the shortage of child care providers also a big issue.
New worker housing can help address the dilemma, he said.
Other companies that have recently built worker lodging include Major Marine Tours in Seward. Major Marine owner Tom Tougas said he builds new worker housing almost every year. About 80 of his employees receive the housing at discounted rates. He says companies with the best employee housing have the best employees.
In Hoonah, a Southeast Alaska village, the Huna Totem Alaska Native village corporation imported a man camp that had been used at the Clear Space Force Station Base about 80 miles outside Fairbanks.
The camp, with 48 beds and 24 rooms, was barged down this spring to provide lodging for the corporation’s workers at the Icy Strait Point cruise ship destination, said Fred Parady, chief operating officer with Huna Totem.
“We’re having a strong season and our workforce needs were increasing,” Parady said.
A former state ferry in Ketchikan will provide employee lodging
In Ketchikan in Southeast Alaska, where housing prices soared last year, several hundred jobs are unfilled in the town of about 8,000, said Richard Harney, planning and community development director for the Ketchikan Gateway Borough.
But there are few lodging options for new workers.
Even the borough is struggling to find employees, he said. Some prospects recently declined job offers after they couldn’t find housing they could afford, he said.
“It’s pretty tough,” he said.
The town is trying to change its code to boost construction of more affordable housing, including for more accessory dwelling units — mother-in-law apartments on residential properties — as Anchorage has done, he said.
In a private effort in Ketchikan, a business group purchased the state’s historic Malaspina ferry this spring for about $130,000. Plans include creating a floating museum, while also providing worker housing, including for other employers.
John Binkley, president of the company and participant in the partnership that last year opened a new cruise destination in Ketchikan, said the Malaspina will try to keep costs low for rooms.
The Binkley family is also invested in the Ward Cove project, a new cruise destination in Ketchikan. Ward Cove employees can also be housed in the ferry, Binkley said.
(Binkley’s sons and daughter own the Anchorage Daily News. John Binkley himself does not have a role in the ADN’s operations. The Binkleys are not involved in news coverage.)
The ferry has 280 beds, between state rooms and crew quarters, he said.
The plan can alleviate some demand on the local rental market, which has shrunk as people turned properties into summertime rentals, he said.
“I hope what we’re doing is a small part of the solution (for Ketchikan),” he said.
This article has been updated to clarify the Binkley family’s investment in the Ward Cove project and that some of its employees could be housed in the Malaspina.