2-1-1 Snapshot Highlights Need for Affordable Housing

One of Neighborworks Anchorage's properties for single resident occupants. Photo courtesy of Neighborworks Anchorage.

Rent and housing prices are high in Alaska. And that’s putting a squeeze on lower income families in the state. The United Way’s social service help line – 2-1-1 – is logging an increasing number of calls about affordable housing. But the outlook for providing cheaper options for families, especially in the Anchorage area, is bleak.

The most common request to United Way’s 2-1-1 line was for rent and utility assistance, followed by requests for low-income rental housing, domestic violence shelters and transitional or temporary housing. Michele Brown, President of United Way of Alaska says requests for housing rose sharply in 2009 and have remained high since, especially in and around Anchorage.

“We’re finding a lot of callers who called us in ‘08 and ‘09 who said, it’s the first time I’ve had to call for help. I’ve always been able to take care of my family. Now we’re having callers that are repeat callers. They got stuck back then and they can’t get out,” Brown said.

Last year, 2-1-1 had around 20,000 calls and Brown says they’re on track to exceed that number in 2012. Their half-year data snapshot released July 9 shows about 46 percent of callers seeking housing assistance received referrals for services. But more than half of those callers, who specifically requested rent and utility assistance, could not be helped. As Brown explains, the state money allocated for such assistance only goes so far.

“It’s small pockets of money that a couple of providers have. And it runs pretty much out at the beginning of every month. And so we have about a 54 percent unmet need of people looking for that,” Brown said.

Brown says Alaska 2-1-1 workers have been trouble shooting with callers who they can’t help – suggesting they start visiting food banks instead of grocery stores to free up cash for rent or utility bills. But the overarching problem, brown says, is a trifecta of stagnant wages, increasing housing prices and not enough affordable housing. And that’s putting the squeeze on families.

“A single family home in Anchorage is far beyond the means of the average wage earner and rental properties are now out of the range. On minimum wage,  it would take a two-wage family more than 50 percent of their income to rent an average two-bedroom place, and the federal government says if you’re spending more than a quarter of your income on housing, you’re in financial trouble,” Brown said.

The July edition of Alaska Economic Trends, a publication of the Alaska Department of Labor, supports Brown’s claims. It says that Alaska housing costs rose 7.6 percent over the past four years, compared to 1.3 percent nationwide. State economist Neil Fried says the Alaska housing market has remained relatively stable during the economic downturn. But construction of new homes nearly came to a halt.

“We did build significantly fewer new homes in the last three and four years in Anchorage, I think last year the number of new houses built in Anchorage was the smallest number we had seen since the early 1990s,” Fried said.

And that lack of inventory is driving prices out of range for people who don’t make a lot of money. The average home price in Anchorage is $329,000. A two-bedroom apartment costs around $1,200 a month. And there’s not much hope in sight. According to a 2012 Housing Market Analysis for the city the two-bedroom apartment vacancy rate is 1.9 percent. Neighborworks Anchorage, a non-profit that provides affordable housing for low to moderate income people says their vacancy rate is hovering around 1.25 percent. Daryl Hess works for Mayor Dan Sullivan’s office. He coordinates the ‘Mayor’s Kitchen Cabinet’, which is essentially a working group on homeless. Hess says the group sent the Mayor a list of recommendations in May on how to spur building.

“Looking at the possibility of using public lands, municipally owned lands. Waiving or reducing permitting, speeding up permitting. Tax abatement. The possibility of tax increment financing. The mayor is looking at those and deciding which ones the administration wants to explore further,” Hess said.

Hess says the group is set to meet again in August and the Mayor should announce which recommendations his office will be taking up then. The United Way’s Michele Brown wants to see Anchorage get ahead of the situation before it gets to the crisis stage.

“I would really like to see a concentrated effort in this state of government, non-profit providers and the private sector, developing a plan to increase housing stock of all kinds,” Brown said.

Brown says the Alaska 211 half year snapshot sends a clear message to leaders and legislators … about what they need to do to make a difference when it comes to creating more affordable housing in Anchorage. And she hopes they’re listening.

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Daysha Eaton, KMXT - Kodiak
Daysha Eaton is a contributor with the Alaska Public Radio Network. Daysha Eaton holds a B.A. from Evergreen State College, and a M.A. from the University of Southern California. Daysha got her start in radio at Seattle public radio stations, KPLU and KUOW. Before coming to KBBI, she was the News Director at KYUK in Bethel. She has also worked as the Southcentral Reporter for KSKA in Anchorage. Daysha's work has appeared on NPR's "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered", PRI's "The World" and "National Native News". She's happy to take assignments, and to get news tips, which are best sent via email. Daysha became a journalist because she believes in the power of storytelling. Stories connect us and they help us make sense of our world. They shed light on injustice and they comfort us in troubled times. She got into public broadcasting because it seems to fulfill the intention of the 4th Estate and to most effectively apply the freedom of the press granted to us through the Constitution. She feels that public radio has a special way of moving people emotionally through sound, taking them to remote places, introducing them to people they would not otherwise meet and compelling them to think about issues they might ordinarily overlook.