Housing in Alaska stable amid national woes

Posted: Monday, February 23, 2009

Alaska's real estate markets are stable, although they are cooling from the go-go years from 2004 to 2007, according to the head of Alaska House Finance Corp.

"We're not seeing anything that concerns us," Dan Fauske, CEO of the housing corporation, told the House Special Committee on Economic Development, Trade and Tourism in Juneau on Feb. 17.

September 2008 data, the latest available to AHFC, showed average sales prices stable in Anchorage and the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, and slightly up in Fairbanks, Kenai and Kodiak. Delinquency and foreclosure rates are small compared to national figures.

"New housing construction is slow but contractors and subcontractors are busy with remodeling," Fauske said.

The state is pumping several hundred million dollars into the economy for weatherization and home conservation measures, and that is also helping, he said.

Things are a lot different in the Lower 48. "It's a collapse brought on by excessive speculation and an incredible lack of oversight," by banks and regulators, Fauske told legislators. "The defaults in high-risk sub-prime mortgages started a cycle of depreciation in home values," that is now dragging down the economy, he said.

Fauske faulted borrowers and lenders for sheer greed.

Alaska isn't alone among states that are in better shape, Fauske said. There are many area in the South and Midwest where conditions are better. The problems are concentrated in a few places, such as the Southwest, he said.

Luckily, only a few Alaska banks dabbled in sub-prime home mortgages and AHFC has none in its portfolio.

"We were under a great deal of pressure to get involved in the sub-prime market and people actually got angry with us," Fauske said. "Now they look at us and wonder how we saw something they didn't see."

The upshot is that Alaska's delinquency rates of 2.66 percent on home loans were less than half the 6.99 percent national average at the end of the third quarter of 2008, the latest data available to AHFC. Delinquencies in the state housing corporation's portfolio were even lower, at 2.29 percent, he said.

The housing corporation has been monitoring delinquencies, foreclosure rates and real estate sales through the fourth quarter but has detected no changes in trends, Fauske said.

There is little doubt the market is slowing, however. Third quarter data shows home sales down 20 percent in Anchorage and the Mat-Su, 13 percent down in Fairbanks and 17 percent down in Kenai.

"We see this as the market cooling to what we would describe as a 'moderate' compared with a 'hot' market that prevailed from 1999 through 2005," Fauske said. "There were times in 2004 when you could almost sell your house while walking out to get the mail."

AHFC doesn't have a lot of data for Southeast communities, but Fauske said housing is always tight - and expensive - in Juneau. Vacancy rates for rental units are often at zero to 1 percent. But most of the remaining buildable land in Juneau is owned by the local municipality, Fauske said.

"There's not a lot we can do in creating affordable housing for Juneau until the city does something about that," in terms of making land available, Fauske said.

Ketchikan's economy and real estate market appeared stable after several years of severe difficulty when Ketchikan Pulp Co. closed its mill there. Development of the shipyard and other industrial activity in Ketchikan has helped stabilize the community.

Despite Alaska's strengths, the problems of the national economy are having their effects. Banks in Alaska have money to lend but they are tightening credit for home buyers and home builders. New lending guidelines discourage speculative building or building on land a developer doesn't own.

"It's tougher to get loans but that's not a bad thing," Fauske said. "The years of being able to buy homes with no down payment are gone."

Fauske is also concerned about consumer confidence in Alaska being eroded by a barrage of bad economic news from others states.

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