MAKing It: How ‘worry-free’ housing in Kodiak is changing lives

SPONSORED: Kodiak Island Housing Authority is providing affordable solutions to a local housing shortage.

Presented by First National Bank Alaska

Living in Alaska can be hard. In winter, the snow must be shoveled; the driveway, plowed; the sidewalks, salted. For older Alaskans with mobility constraints, these tasks can be even more challenging, and worrisome.

But for residents at Kodiak Island Housing Authority’s apartments, those worries have faded. At these facilities, dedicated teams maintain the properties, so tenants don’t have to struggle with Alaska’s elements — all while enjoying the benefits of living in a close-knit community.

“I like to call it worry-free living,” said Kodiak Island Housing Authority Executive Director Mindy Pruitt, about Emerald Heights.

Among the housing authority’s rental properties, the Emerald Heights complex features 32 apartments for seniors with sprawling views overlooking Kodiak Harbor.

“I have to pinch myself, really,” said Sonya Nicholson, a 77-year-old resident who sold her house and moved into Emerald Heights last year. “I found a place where I don’t have to worry about anything.”

Kodiak Island Housing Authority serves as the tribally designated housing entity for nine tribes in the Kodiak region. It provides a variety of services to American Indian and Alaska Native families and individuals, including housing assistance for low-income residents and local students. It also provides assistance for eligible non-American Indian and -Alaska Native residents, including individuals 55 years and older.

Throughout the region, Kodiak Island Housing Authority supports more than 300 households through affordable and subsidized housing and provides millions in emergency assistance to residents each year.

Kodiak’s housing shortage: ‘We’re taking a different approach’

Kodiak is the second largest island in the U.S., but its mountainous terrain is mostly undeveloped. It has fewer than 90 miles of paved road. The housing market is tight — and limited.

“We just don’t have a lot of vacant land for new development,” Pruitt said. “And then what is available is extremely expensive, so it’s very cost-prohibitive for families.”

Many of the families at Harborview and Cliffwood apartments work two or three jobs in the community, Pruitt said.

“We keep those rents really affordable for families that are doing great things in our community,” she said.

Affordable rent is crucial for the island’s residents. A needs assessment commissioned by the housing authority in 2022 found that the vast majority of Kodiak residents (77%) rated housing affordability “poor” for homes for sale, with a similar number of residents (71%) rating rental affordability as “poor.”

The most in-demand type of housing was affordable single-family homes.

The assessment also identified senior housing as an ever-growing need in Kodiak. The Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development forecasts that the borough’s population of residents 65 and older will peak in 2035.

Providing housing for older residents is more than just a senior issue. Pruitt said that when older adults sell their homes to move into the organization’s housing, they’re also freeing up new spaces for younger families.

“We’re taking a different approach on ways that we can help solve some of the housing shortage in Kodiak,” she said.

In addition to its properties built for Kodiak seniors and low-income residents, Kodiak Island Housing Authority has an apartment complex called Heritage Heights, which serves elders and disabled families.

At Emerald Heights, ‘my burden has been lifted’

Nicholson, the Emerald Heights resident, first came to Kodiak in the 1970s with her husband, Larry, who was a fisheries biologist. They lived on the island for years before moving to Sterling, on the Kenai Peninsula.

When she lost Larry to cancer in 2020, Nicholson didn’t know what to do.

“I was so lost; I was so alone,” she said. “And I just didn’t feel like [Sterling] was home.”

Nicholson visited Kodiak last year. At a local furnishings store, she ran into a friend, who told Nicholson to come visit her at Emerald Heights.

When Nicholson walked into the Emerald Heights’ open, inviting living room space, she knew that was where she wanted to be.

“It was everything I need,” she said, getting teary. “When I walked in here, my burden had been lifted.”

Living at Emerald Heights has changed Nicholson’s life. She and her building neighbors — who are all active — take care of each other around the holidays. They gather over games and puzzles in the activity room. They’ll often meet for impromptu potluck brunches.

“There’s a camaraderie on Kodiak that you don’t find in other places,” she said.

She no longer needs to be concerned about taking care of her property, like she did when she owned a home. Larry handled snow plowing and repairs, and when he died, she had to find contractors to do the same work. Now, when she goes on vacation, she can just lock up and go — without thinking about what might happen while she’s gone.

Nicholson has friends who are on the Emerald Heights wait-list. Nearly all of the 32 units in the building are full.

Emerald Heights is “kind of the crown jewel in the properties that they offer,” said Mark Lonheim, First National Bank Alaska vice president and manager of the Kodiak Branch. First National financed the building with Kodiak Island Housing Authority and the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation.

Kodiak Island Housing Authority is looking to buy another property for seniors, with space for another 24 units. When the time comes, First National will be ready to help them meet their needs, Lonheim said.

120 years of combined experience

The team at First National’s Kodiak Branch knows the housing authority and its larger community well.

“Not only do we have a working relationship with Kodiak Housing Island Authority, we also have a personal relationship with Mindy and her team,” said First National Branch Operations Supervisor and Assistant Vice President Debbie Olson.

The Kodiak Branch has a cumulative 120 years of service among 10 employees. Many employees have long tenures there — like Olson, who has nearly four decades of experience with First National. The branch, which opened in 1963, is celebrating its 60th anniversary in July.

In addition to financing properties, First National assists Kodiak Island Housing Authority with all banking transactions and is helping it transition to a cashless organization.

“We’re a small enough bank that we can provide customized services,” Lonheim said. “Yet we’re tech-savvy enough to provide digital solutions to meet our customers’ changing needs.”

Pruitt said bank staff has been present in meetings with tribal leaders and community partners. Lonheim keeps an eye on properties that might be coming onto the market that align with Kodiak Island Housing Authority’s needs.

The team at First National values “knowing our community and being a consistent resource,” Lonheim said.

In a tightknit community like Kodiak, degrees of separation are few and far between.

It’s something Nicholson knows well. Some of her neighbors at Emerald Heights are colleagues or friendly faces from years ago. Now, for the first time in decades, she lives in the same community as her family.

“It’s like a big hug,” Nicholson said. “No matter where I go, I know faces, I know people, I know their history.”

First National Bank Alaska has been Alaska’s community bank since 1922. We’re proud to help Alaskans shape a brighter tomorrow by investing in your success as you take the leaps of faith, large and small, that enrich communities across the state.

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This article was produced by the sponsored content department of Anchorage Daily News in collaboration with First National Bank Alaska. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.