Alaska renters face uncertainty as federal pandemic rental assistance nears end

A young woman standing on an empty street
Haines resident Emma Brouillette, 18, benefitted from COVID rental assistance but with the program end is searching for more affordable housing (Corinne Smith/KHNS)

Tens of thousands of Alaska tenants got help with rent during the pandemic. But the federal rental assistance program is set to expire by the early summer, and many still face challenges finding and affording housing.

Eighteen-year-old Haines resident Emma Brouillette has moved three times since graduating from Haines High school last year.

“It’s definitely really scary,” she said. “So my rent is $1,000 a month. I get around $450 every week for my paycheck. So I don’t actually get to save any of that.”

Brouillette works in the kitchen for a heliski tour company. She says paying for a studio apartment in town, plus utilities and food, is a stretch. She’s been supporting herself since she was sixteen. She says that with her qualifications, finding an entry level job that pays a living wage has been difficult.

“Between COVID and us not having tourism, so many businesses are closed, there’s not too many jobs out and about that can offer sort of a lot of progression,” Brouillette said. “So I’ve been doing my best to look around for jobs that can provide. And with COVID, so many people are having that same struggle. So people are sticking to their apartments, sticking to where it’s safe.”

Last fall, Brouillette was working at a local pizza restaurant and struggling to get by when she saw a posting and applied for COVID rental assistance.

“I found it to be incredibly helpful,” she said. “Because it helped with my mental state with my stress, it wrote that off as one less thing that needed to be done, and allowed me to work on myself.”

Now, with federal funding ending, she’s looking for a better paying job and a more affordable place, ideally splitting costs with a roommate.

But she says it’s also hard to save for a deposit for a new place while covering her bills.

“I have a job, and I’m able to pay for things, but I’m not able to look at a better job,” Brouillette said. “With my lease ending, if I want to try to find a new place, I need to find another source of income so I’m able to pay that first month of rent and that down (payment) deposit so I can actually move.”

31-year-old Joe Aultman-Moore is facing similar housing challenges. He was displaced from his home during the deadly Beach Road landslide in 2020. His cabin was deemed too risky to return to.

“When that was rendered unlivable after the slide, I essentially had to move into town somewhere,” he said. “I had to scramble to find a place in the middle of winter.”

He found emergency housing following the disaster, then rented a studio apartment in Fort Seward for $850 a month. As a former tour guide, but with no summer tours during the pandemic, he qualified for the COVID rental assistance.

“That’s made living in town possible throughout the continuing pandemic,” Aultman-Moore said. “But once that ends, I’m essentially going to have to move out of there. So, you know, continuing on, it’s pretty much still up in the air.”

Aultman-Moore says he was able to put away savings during that time and is working toward building his own tiny home.

“My long term plan going forward is to build a tiny house and stop paying for rent. Because that’s the only way that it makes sense to continue to live here,” he said. “Because, yeah, like rent going up and seasonal workers coming in and the renting situation constantly shifting around here. It’s just, it’s impossible to manage.”

The Alaska Housing Finance Corporation says it has distributed more than $220 million from the federal COVID relief program. In all, 100 Haines households benefited.

Housing Corporation spokesperson Stacey Barnes said one-third of all renters in the state applied, and over 66,000 Alaskans benefited.

“The idea that an individual or a family was questioning where they may sleep the next night or the next month because they lost hours associated with their job, maybe they lost their job altogether,” Barnes said. “Or maybe they had to care for a family member who became closely in contact with someone else who had COVID. Or perhaps they had COVID themselves. And so knowing that financial relief was on the way, was something that has made a tremendous impact.”

The program paid any past rent due, then made direct rental payments  landlords in three-month installments. In the Haines Borough alone, that totaled over $660,000 in assistance. There were two rounds of funding over the last year, but assistance is now set to end by early summer.

“While our country is now coming out of the COVID pandemic, those individuals are able to return to full employment, and make the decisions that are in the best interest of their family without having completely drawn down their savings without having built up huge credit card debt. And by maintaining the security of their housing,” Barnes said.

But renters are still facing major challenges affording housing.

Heather Parker is an attorney with Alaska Legal Services based in Juneau. She says they’re seeing an increase in evictions across Southeast Alaska in recent months as tenants face the end of federal rental assistance.

“Even though this particular COVID housing benefit is kind of coming to an end, I just want people to know that state and federal law still applies. And there are still obligations that landlords and tenants have under state law,” Parker said.

In particular, Parker says tenants have process rights during evictions.

Janine Allen is an advocate with Southeast Alaska Independent Living based in Haines. She says with federal rental assistance ending, they’re working to connect seniors and people with disabilities with additional assistance like for food and fuel. But housing availability continues to be a major challenge, especially for those on a fixed income.

“The housing situation in Haines seems hard for pretty much everybody right now, regardless of your income. And then if you have a disability or if you’re a senior it’s just nearly impossible.”

Looking ahead, renters like Joe Aultman-Moore, whose Beach Road cabin was condemned, say more needs to be done to address housing options and affordability.

“You’re on a treadmill,” he said. “And if anything goes wrong, like if you stumble in the slightest, you’re gonna go flying off that treadmill real quick.”

Alaska Legal Services staffs a statewide housing hotline for both tenants and landlords at 855-743-1001. There are also housing resources at alaskalawhelp.org. Alaska’s 2-1-1 hotline connects residents to a variety of public benefits, including housing assistance. 

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