Juneau takes on affordable housing woes

City drafts revised comprehensive plan to spur development

Posted: Monday, April 02, 2007

The city is hoping its revised comprehensive plan will entice landowners to develop their properties with hundreds of new homes, mostly along bus routes, to ease Juneau's affordable housing crisis.

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Nearly 60 private properties along bus routes remain undeveloped due to wetlands restrictions and unfriendly building codes, said Susana Montana, a planner with the Community Development Department.

A recently completed draft of the city's revised comprehensive plan is intended to address the building restrictions that have led to a drought of small, affordable housing options for young professionals and low-income families in recent years, she said.

"We're really focusing on providing land for affordable housing, and in order to achieve affordability we need higher density and a little taller buildings along the bus route," Montana said.

When the plan was last revised in 1995, there were only two policies that addressed housing, she said. During the most recent revision process, which has taken nearly a year, 10 policies have been added to help find a solution to a problem that is driving people away from Juneau, Montana said.

"People have recognized that (affordable housing) is a problem for all income levels, including our seniors, our kids who would like to be able to stay here, our young work force and other low income folks too," said Daniel Ungier of United Way, who is a community liaison to the Affordable Housing Commission.

There has been a lot of discussion about addressing the problem, he said.

"The majority of Juneau right now is priced out of the market, and I think people are really ready to see some solutions to that," Ungier said.

The new policies in the revised plan include providing more land for housing, encouraging housing of all sizes, and expediting the permit and review process to protect the character of existing neighborhoods. One of the policies establishes the goal of matching the standard national vacancy rate of 5 percent.

"Our vacancy rate now is about 1 percent," Montana said. "To achieve that vacancy rate, we need 645 new units today. So one of the policies says the city should provide an adequate amount of land."

Know and go

Comprehensive plan events

• Neighborhood meeting: Wednesday, 7-9 p.m., Douglas library.

• Open houses: Saturday, April 14, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., Mendenhall Mall; Saturday, April 21, noon to 3 p.m., downtown library conference room.

The transit corridor is the ideal location to build higher density affordable housing because it is mostly on the sewer line, could reduce traffic and parking concerns, and could handle four or five story apartment or condominium buildings that would not obstruct the prized shoreline views, she said.

The city has identified parcels of land in Auke Bay, near the Mendenhall Mall, the airport area, Lemon Creek and on South Franklin Street downtown that would be ideal for the high-density affordable homes.

The revision of the comprehensive plan is an important step to begin development, Montana said.

"We do need a construction boom, but if you start today, we might not get it for two years," because of acquiring land, processing permits and the construction time, she said. "All of those units will come in phases."

Even if the comprehensive plan revisions are adopted by the Assembly later this year, Montana said the city will be playing catch-up for several years to meet the needs, ideally building 200 such units each building season, Montana said.

The city is hoping that by changing the zoning to high-density on these vacant properties, landowners will find it worthwhile to develop the land.

"We want to induce them to build," Montana said. "These properties have been vacant for decades and they're vacant for a reason - they are not zoned for density."

The city intends for a percentage of the new units to be designated affordable with restrictions on trying to flip them for a profit.

"The first lucky owner can't make a windfall profit," Montana said.

The city is also looking at land outside the transit corridor where 1,000-square-foot two-bedroom bungalow houses could be built as "starter" homes for families and young professionals who have steady incomes but can't afford the high housing costs.

According to the city's 2006 Housing Situation Report, the average single family home in Juneau is assessed at $357,355.

"There are people living here now that could support this bungalow housing, but there is no product," Montana said. "If we could provide the product they will buy and free up the rental units."

If more affordable units became available it would also lessen the competition for adequate housing between year-round, low-income residents and seasonal workers spending part of the year in Juneau, she said.

Not only are residents concerned about escalating housing costs, so are local businesses, Ungier said.

"A lot of employers are starting to feel the pinch of the difficulty of finding employees to work here," he said. "They realize they need to start finding housing solutions for the health of their businesses."

The city has hired a consultant to complete 450 telephone surveys this month to determine what type of housing the community values.

"We want to make sure we don't zone a type of house that nobody wants to live in," Montana said.

City staff will compile the survey information, along with data collected from community meetings, and present the recommended priorities of the comprehensive plan to the Planning Commission on May 15. A final draft will be brought before the commission in June before being brought to the Assembly sometime this summer, Montana said.

A draft of the revised comprehensive plan, maps and other information can be found at the city's Web site, www.juneau.org.

• Eric Morrison can be reached at eric.morrison@juneauempire.com.

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