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My turn: Juneau's housing situation: why change?

Posted: May 1, 2012 - 12:00am

We are not growing. We are aging in place. Like everywhere in America, but even more so in Juneau, population demographics reflect the biggest change in our history. The first “baby boomers” hit 65 last year. By 2040, the senior population of this country will double to 80 million. In 10 years the population of Juneau grew by just 1.8 percent (compared to 13.3 percent for Alaska as a whole). Now get this—over the same period, Juneau’s senior population grew by 185 percent! We didn’t snag a bunch of folks off the cruise ships, we all just got older. And our kids moved out to school and opportunity elsewhere.

Because I am now a senior, I don’t pay sales tax. Property taxes on my home will be reduced substantially. I ride the bus for free. How long Juneau will be able to continue to reward this “sourdough” for his longevity? Especially since during this decade of stagnant growth and graying we added another high school, another swimming pool, ski lifts, hockey rinks, another parking garage and millions in airport and cruise ship dock improvements. These undeniably positive community assets are part of what makes this quality of life admired by our middle class brethren in the Lower 48. Nevertheless, they also mean recurring public expenditures.

Of course there is more to Juneau than the affluent middle class. Actually, four out of 10 Juneau households meet the definition of “low-income”. They are either “rent burdened” or they are part of the 10 percent that depend on government rental assistance. Most disturbing is the fact that we are Alaska’s most homeless city. Our per capita homeless rate is three times that of Los Angeles County. Tonight, more than 500 Juneau households are homeless.

To continue the good life and to narrow the gap between the haves and have-nots we need new human capital and private investment. We need to attract and retain tomorrow’s workforce; the innovators, the entrepreneurs, the skilled crafts people who will build the businesses and the homes and fill the classrooms with their children. But, when they consider a move to Juneau, their first question is: “housing?”

Our greatest challenge is affordable housing. In 2005, the United Way sponsored a series of community forums concluding that increasing the stock of affordable housing should be the number one goal for political leaders, planners and the community at large. In response, the City and Borough of Juneau established the Affordable Housing Commission, which made its first very small predevelopment loan last year.

Meanwhile, state and federal agencies have eliminated construction programs and reduced rental assistance to low-income households. No multifamily affordable housing project for the general population has been built here for almost a decade. If Juneau is to meet its need for affordable housing it will have to bring the problem home, to own the problem, and take responsibility for solving it.

We have the resources. That is clear from our history of capital project investment. For what we spent on the new parking garage we could build at least 60 affordable apartments; for the price of the new high school, almost 400 in scattered sites throughout the city. Private and public land parcels are available for development. Non-profits like St. Vincent de Paul, The Glory Hole, Housing First, AWARE and others have developed proposals and the Affordable Housing Commission now gives us a mechanism to address the challenge. Best of all, we don’t need to add to the operating costs of local government to do it. Projects built and nominally “owned” by non-profits are in fact public community assets. They cannot be sold in the open market, but by federal law can only be transferred to another non-profit for a similar public purpose—in perpetuity.

Why change? Because the alternative is a Juneau that is economically and politically irrelevant—a quaint back-water populated by aging “boomers” with a declining standard of living and the highest homeless rate in the country.

Change the priorities for public capital investment. Let the city Assembly and our legislators know that viable, non-profit affordable housing projects must be part of the capital project list this year, and the next and the next—until the trend of community decline is reversed.

• Austin, general manager of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, has worked for 15 years to end homelessness in Juneau.

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