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My Turn: Building Juneau's future

Posted: October 8, 2012 - 12:02am

As a young, unpropertied Juneauite who spends a great deal of time working with our neighbors experiencing homelessness, I was glad to see affordable and low-income housing discussed widely in Juneau’s municipal elections (though simultaneously disappointed to see housing left out of the ballot propositions — whether or not one supports them in principle). From comments to the Chamber of Commerce and the Juneau Empire it is clear that housing is on the minds of Sanford, Jones, and Nankervis, but it remains to be seen if any of these gentlemen are prepared to take real action and solve some of our city’s biggest challenges.

Housing in Juneau is tough. People talk of our 1-3 percent rental vacancy rates, but for low-income families, it is far closer to zero. Young people in town work full time jobs and live in run-down trailers and dingy hotel rooms, or move in and out of shelters. Government housing vouchers assigned to veterans and people with disabilities commonly expire in the hands of the homeless while they look unsuccessfully for a vacant room. The campground on Thane road, open half the year, is considered by many to be the only affordable housing they have access to.

Young professionals also face housing challenges in Juneau, as daunting as those in any comparably sized community nationwide. House-sitting, liveaboard boats, and dry cabins lose some of their romance when they become necessary to make ends meet. People leave Juneau frequently for more reasonably priced communities, decreasing our ability to attract and maintain high quality employees—surely a recipe for gradual long term economic decline.

Juneau needs bold action on this issue. If the invisible hand of the market is working, it is working at a very slow rate that is too risky to wait around for. The housing crisis here is serious enough to make accepting the status quo unacceptable. This seemed to be understood on some level by the newly elected municipal officials, but none of them presented the clear plan or tone of urgency that this issue demands. They each supported some exploration of tax breaks, or maybe tinkering with the building code and loosening infrastructure requirements, or maybe revitalizing some old properties, or perhaps searching down south for models of real estate development that may work in Juneau.

These are all ideas that I support, but as explorations alone, they are not enough.

The fundamental solution to the lack of housing in Juneau is not a complicated one: build more units until we have enough, the sooner the better. In each sector — from permanent supportive housing for those experiencing mental illness to new single family homes — building in any layer will decrease the overall pressure on the system. Getting the building started now is more important to our homeless citizens and the long-term viability of our economy than determining the exact number of new subdivisions, rate for tax credits, price per acre, quantity of parking spaces, or dollars of matching funds for every new housing endeavor in town.

Use the CBJ Housing Needs Assessment and other research that has already been done to set a numerical goal of how many housing units, of which type, in which parts of town, we aim to build. Then begin offering incentives that the CBJ has at its disposal to encourage developers to take on those ventures. If developers don’t commit, then offer more or different incentives until they start construction. This is, of course, not a perfect plan — a perfect plan to satisfy every citizen group, business, and individual taxpayer in Juneau does not and will not exist. It is time to stop accepting the search for such a plan as a substitute for tangible progress, and to take the necessary steps to break ground one way or another.

The municipal election is now behind us. It is also getting cold outside, meaning the end of another building season and the beginning of an arduous struggle for those experiencing homelessness in Juneau. Both individual lives and the future of our city are at stake. We need politicians who are willing to say so and then take action — for all of our budgetary tightness, Juneau has some resources at its disposal and I hope our new mayor and Assembly members are bold enough to utilize them to solve this pressing challenge.

• Renick lives in Juneau, and is the Outreach Coordinator at the Glory Hole. He can be reached at 586-4159 or at kiel@feedjuneau.org

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