OPINION: Anchorage has an affordable housing problem

Anchorage has an affordable housing problem. Along with you, I was shocked by the recent ADN article that showed the average housing price in Anchorage as $420,000. The decrease in construction during the pandemic, increases in material costs, and extremely limited housing stock contribute to the high cost of housing in our city. A quick review of online rental platforms, like Zumper and Zillow, reports that the average rent in Anchorage has increased more than 15% this past year alone. With Anchorage rental vacancy rates hovering below 5%, even those who aren’t looking to buy a home are experiencing drastic spikes in the cost of housing. At prices like this, it’s no wonder WalletHub ranked Anchorage 32nd overall, stating we are one of the most expensive places to raise a family. Finding affordable, quality housing is becoming near impossible and everyone is feeling the pinch.

At first glance, a strong housing market seems like a good thing. Increasing home prices means everybody is doing well, right? Unfortunately, especially right here in Anchorage, the resounding answer is “no.” The pandemic has been challenging, and I think for some, watching the economy bounce back feels like a breath of fresh air. Yet it’s not bouncing back as rapidly or as fairly for many. Especially for those living paycheck to paycheck, the high cost of housing leads to the untenable decision to move or face eviction. Without significant investments to stabilize our fragile housing market, many people are about to be left out in the cold, literally.

Housing is one of the key social determinants of health. Because of the hard work done by community groups like NeighborWorks and RurALCAP, we know that when folks find stable housing, health care costs decrease, Medicaid expenditures are reduced, and health outcomes improve. The far reaching implications of stable housing emphasize how critical affordable, stable, and healthy homes are for every person in our community and for our economy overall. With all this information at our fingertips, it is hard to reconcile why we continue to fail to invest in additional affordable housing. To complicate matters further, our city’s limited affordable housing stock is aging. By not addressing deferred maintenance costs, retrofitting for energy efficiency, and implementing new building technology, the few affordable homes we have are headed toward being uninhabitable.

Clearly, we need to fund the immediate and long-term solutions that our community advocates have put forth to address the impending housing crisis. It’s a complicated issue, but as Alaska experiences a significant windfall due to high oil prices, strategic investments addressing deferred maintenance in our Pioneer Homes, and nonprofit-supported affordable housing like Karluk Manor, Merrill Crossing, and Mountain View Village will go a long way to stabilize housing for our vulnerable populations. Fully funding Alaska Housing Finance Corporation’s rental assistance programs and first-time home buyer loans will help those experiencing housing insecurity stay in their homes or find safe spaces to thrive in urban and rural Alaska. Investing in Housing First, reducing barriers for current homeowners to build accessory dwelling units, and publicly financing more affordable housing means stabilizing our already shaky markets, reducing the strain on our already struggling nonprofits and public corporations.

These short-term solutions are just the beginning. We need long-term, creative solutions to stabilize Alaska’s housing market. Low housing stock affects everyone. When only those who can afford to live in certain areas crowd out others, we lose something immensely tangible that becomes almost impossible to get back: our diversity. Income diverse communities benefit from increased educational outcomes, improved housing quality, improved mental health, and higher wages. Building affordable homes near urban centers, transit hubs, and schools help ensure every person has equal access to the resources that allow every person to thrive.

As the Assembly, mayor, and Alaska Legislature debate tactics on how to encourage more housing stock across the Anchorage bowl, let’s all take this moment to discuss and determine what we need to do to stabilize and build more affordable housing. It’s critical we examine current and future policies, systems, beliefs, assumptions, and funding mechanisms to ensure equitable housing solutions that every Alaskan can access. Without a community-centered approach, we’re destined to repeat the mistakes of the past. Anchorage could be one of the best places in the United States to raise a family, and we all need to pitch in to make it so.

Löki Gale Tobin is a staffer for Alaska Senate Minority Leader Tom Begich, a member of the Pride Foundation board of directors and a community activist.

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