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United Way: Alaska short on housing help

Middle class struggles to keep living entry-level homes; fewer moving up

Posted: July 14, 2012 - 11:09pm

A recent snapshot of how Alaskans use a statewide emergency social services number reveals a pervasive lack of emergency housing assistance.

Alaska United Way runs Alaska 2-1-1. It recently released data describing the 11,000 calls it received in the first half of 2012 to the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation to assist the Governor’s Council on the Homeless.

The 2-1-1 service works as a portal to a variety of statewide community, health and human services connections.

United Way’s data showed that 22 percent of callers asked for help with housing issues. Requests for help with rent and utilities were the most common, and need for low-income housing ranked next. Only 46 percent of callers seeking housing assistance were successfully directed to aid. This sub-50 percent success rate is due to a statewide shortage of adequate resources, according to United Way.

Juneau shared in the state totals.

Over the last six months 49 calls to 2-1-1 for housing assistance originated in Juneau, Michele Brown president the United Way of Anchorage said. Two requests were turned down for lack homeless shelter space in town and six requests for rent assistance went unmet, she said.

Brown said Alaska suffers from insufficient housing stock. Whether publicly-supported housing or market based housing, she said, home prices have risen faster than income for the majority of the state’s population.

“It has become an increasing problem,” Brown said. “That is why a lot of our calls are about housing.”

The emergency number allows United Way to track unmet needs in Alaska, Brown said. A lot of Alaskans call because they can’t make ends meet, she said.

United Way tries to help keep homeowners and renters stay in their homes.

“Once you lose that, the road back to being housed is a lot more complicated, expensive and heart breaking,” Brown said. “Rents have far outstripped peoples’ incomes.“

Brown said if the resources or infrastructure are not there to help callers, 2-1-1 staff offer what support they can, such as advice to go to a food pantry can save money. “But it’s not really what they asked for,” Brown said.

Brown said housing assistance is getting squeezed from three sides.

There is “a shrinking pot of money, rising cost and an increasing number of people needing assistance,” Brown said. “So you’ve got all these things going at once.”

Requests for assistance have slowed since a sharp increase in 2008 and 2009, Brown said.

“We are continuing to see increases, at a lower rate, but we also never went back down,” Brown said. “Three years, going on four, of sustained high need, so you have had quite a lot of pressure on providers. It is a highly stressed system.”

If a family is able to secure assistance for housing, it could still prove difficult to find an affordable unit. Due to the pressures on home-owners and renters, Alaska is seeing a loss of mobility in housing. Alaskans are not moving up from lower to higher quality housing, she said.

Middle class families, teachers, police, nurses, “they no longer can afford the price of a single family home,” Brown said. “Alaska’s middle class has held onto its smaller homes, rentals and other entry-level housing.

United Way’s 2-1-1 service receives roughly 20,000 callers a year.

For more information visit www.alaska211.org.

• Contact reporter Russell Stigall at 523-2276 or at russell.stigall@juneauempire.com.

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