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Alaska Life

Senior housing shortage prompts churches to explore projects

  • Author: Devin Kelly
  • Updated: July 8, 2016
  • Published April 11, 2014

Mindful of Anchorage's housing shortfall, a local church is moving forward with plans for a senior housing development on its property in the Tudor area.

Leaders with St. Mary's Episcopal Church said that between 12 and 14 apartment units are expected to be housed in a single building on the church's lower parking lot, nestled off the main driveway along East Tudor Road. Construction could start as early as next year.

On a recent morning, the Rev. Michael Burke stood on the site, holding the latest design blueprints in his hand. The plans show the future development surrounded by a wooded landscape that architects have been instructed to preserve.

As analysts warn of an Anchorage-wide housing shortage and as various groups push for ways to boost the production of all types of housing, religious congregations are starting to make forays into the building and development arena.

"If we're really going to address the housing needs of Anchorage, we're going to have to find multiple models and bring lots of new community players into the mix," said Burke, the rector of St. Mary's. "And everybody is going to be able to contribute maybe a very small piece."

Those small pieces fit into a large puzzle, one aspect of which is the pressing issue of senior housing. Alaska has the fastest growth rate of seniors in the United States -- and in the Anchorage area, the number of seniors is projected to grow 7 percent annually, according to Jon Erickson, a planner with the Alaska Commission on Aging. That means that by 2025, the population of Alaskans over the age of 60 will have increased by about 100,000.

Demand is already high -- according to the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation, 1,367 people are currently on the statewide waiting list for seniorpublic housing, including 729 in Anchorage.

That's where St. Mary's hopes to come in, even if on a small scale, Burke said. Planners envision a mix of two-bedroom, one-bedroom and studio apartments to house relatively healthy, independent seniors.

At least at first, preference will be given to members of the congregation. That effectively frees up slots in the broader Anchorage housing market that otherwise are occupied by church members, Burke said.

Seniors will live in private apartments with kitchens, but share a common living area with other residents to encourage social interaction.

"The idea came about, 'Wouldn't it be great if we all lived together?' " Burke said of what he described as "interdependent housing."

That shared-space concept is embraced by projects like the Raven's Roost co-housing development in Anchorage and the Raven's Landing retirement community in Fairbanks, both of which influenced planners at St. Mary's.

A $5 million donation from two longtime parishioners is funding the development, Burke said, adding that no state or federal funds are being used. The program's operations will also include an affordability component.

Founded in 1955, the church has launched a number of organizations over the years, but this is its first attempt at developing housing.

"Perhaps this can be a model and encouragement for other faith communities to step up in similar ways," Burke said.

Already, others have taken notice. Congregation Beth Sholom, a reform Jewish synagogue in Anchorage, is in the early stages of exploring a similar type of interdependent senior housing development, said Randy Magen, the president of the board of trustees. The synagogue holds six acres of land off Northern Lights Boulevard in East Anchorage.

There is no timeline for the project yet, but leaders recently held a meeting to broach the idea within the congregation and gain support, Magen said. Close to half of the members of the congregation are empty nesters or retirees.

"We were saying, 'What can we do?' " Magen said. "We have land, as St. Mary's does."

Buildable land is a resource in increasingly short supply in the Anchorage Bowl, and the focus of heightened interest in the housing and development community.

In 2012, the Abbott Loop Community Church sold about seven acres of its property along Lake Otis Parkway to the Anchorage-based Lumen Group. The property developed into a workforce housing community called Trailside Heights, owned by the faith-based Volunteers of America nonprofit organization. Since opening in March, 66 units have been filled, 20 units are currently being leased and crews will soon break ground on another 35, said Volunteers of America Alaska president and CEO Elaine Dalgren.

Frank Curry, the Abbott Loop Community Church's executive pastor, said the church sold the land with the hope some kind of housing development would come in the future. And he and other church leaders have been happy with the result.

"It just worked out great for us," he said.

Reach Devin Kelly at or 257-4314.


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