Housing expert says many Sitkans struggle to make rent

Brian Wilson, Executive Director of Alaska Coalition on Housing and Homelessness, addresses one of two town hall meetings he held in Sitka this week. About 55 people total attended. (Photo by Rachel Cassandra/KCAW)

In Sitka, like many towns in Southeast Alaska, geographic isolation creates unique problems of affordable housing and homelessness. This week, Sitka held a pair of town hall meetings with a visiting expert to canvas ideas for solutions.

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Affordable housing has long been a concern in Sitka, and so has the connected issue of homelessness. Recently, a national report called “Out of Reach” quantified the gap in Sitka between a liveable wage and the average wage.

Brian Wilson, Executive Director of the Alaska Coalition on Housing and Homelessness, says almost half of Sitkans may be struggling to make rent.

“If you look at the Alaska numbers, they calculated that an individual would have to make $24.80 an hour in order to afford a fair-market, two-bedroom rental,” Wilson said. “And this is problematic because they also calculate down to the community level how much an average renter is currently making per hour, so in Sitka, 44% of our households here are rentals and the average renter is only making $13.96 an hour.”

Wilson says this wide gap means Sitkans may not be able to afford other necessities besides rent and utilities. But the problem is not unique to Sitka: Out of Reach identifies no county in the U.S. where the local minimum wage affordably covers rent for a two-bedroom apartment.

About 55 Sitkans total attended the town hall meetings at the Sitka Public Library. Participants brainstormed homelessness actions. They included creating camping shelters and weaving sleeping bags and mats out of plastic bags.

Carly Collins, who spent the past five years homeless, says it’s important to live independently in a home, even if it’s very small and mobile.

“A couple of good ideas that I heard was the tiny house on wheels,” Collins said. “There’s not a lot of, I would say, land availability to park a house on wheels, the campgrounds in town, you can only stay for a few months. Somebody did just bring up an idea of taking abandoned boats and double checking, making sure they’re all right, and then having that as an accessible way for people who are homeless to have some kind of shelter, an independent shelter of their own.”

Sitkan Gayle Young is active in the struggle against homelessness. She is part of the Sitka Homeless Coalition, which hopes to build an overnight winter shelter. Last year, the coalition partnered with the First Presbyterian church, but those plans came to a halt when the church announced it was closing. Now the group is continuing its search elsewhere.

“We are looking now for a space. We are ready for a space,” Young said. “We would love to get these guys under cover this fall, if they choose, it’s just an option.”

Wilson warns, however, that shelters are a last-chance resort to address homelessness. He says that the issues need to be addressed on a systemic level, and that preventing homelessness is better than providing shelters.

Tina Bachmeier contributed to this story.