Upcoming projects may ease housing crunch slightly

Posted: Tuesday, April 04, 2000

While housing vacancy rates in Juneau have eased in recent years, there is still a shortage of affordable housing for first-time homebuyers, observers agree.

Some relief could be on the way, although it will take a couple of years and a lingering problem is still expected.

Although state and city statistics don't provide an exact vacancy rate, no one argues that a ``starter'' home is hard to find.

In the mid-'90s, the vacancy rate probably was less than 1 percent and amounted to ``a Saturday as people were in their trucks moving from one place to another,'' said Kirk Flanders, acting director of the Juneau Economic Development Council.

Since then, ``There's more choice, but there's still a glaring hole in our ability to create affordable housing, and the reason is land development costs,'' Flanders said. ``You end up with so much money in site preparation, the developer can't afford to put a cheap house on it. . . . It's nobody's fault.''

Affordable housing is seen as key to community stability, however.

The real crunch comes for a two-earner household with total income of about $50,000, which is average for Juneau for two private sector wages, Flanders said. That couple could afford a house in the range of $130,000-to-$150,000, but there aren't many of those that don't require extensive renovation, he said.

``I don't think this is an unrecognized hole in the market. But it's a tough nut to crack.''

Although it's hard to tell from the city permits that have been issued exactly when construction will occur, not many low-cost housing starts appear to be on the horizon, said Chris Roust of the city's Community Development Department. ``Looking at the trends I've seen in the numbers over the last few years, they've gone downhill. I'm considering it to be flat or slightly down.''

But there are projects in the works that could ease the crunch.

A new non-profit organization, Juneau Housing Trust, is being formed with an eye toward buying land that could be leased to first-time homebuyers for single-family homes and condominiums.

Under that concept, homebuyers would use conventional financing. But with land costs removed, they could achieve home ownership at a price reduction of one third to one half. Even if the initial buyer can't make it, the site would remain reserved for affordable housing through the trust's ownership of the land.

Housing Trust board member Tamara Rowcroft said the group is still working out its exact approach. ``Where's the money, what's the need, what's realistic in this community?''

A project could be new housing or a rehab, Rowcroft said. Depending on the difficulty of putting together a patchwork of state and federal financing, a project could be ready for occupancy in fall 2001, she said.

Meanwhile, the city has been doing small land sales for housing and even donating a couple of lots to non-profit groups. A variety of city land is being prepared for sale near Auke Lake, Montana Creek and the Auke Rec Bypass Road.

Lands Manager Steve Gilbertson said that while many lots offered by the city might be designated for moderate or upper-income homes, the families that move out of starter homes to get something better will create vacancies in their turn. ``There's a shift that occurs in the housing market.''

Some new land for housing could come on the market next year, Gilbertson said. ``There's land available. Of course, each proposal has its own neighborhood issues. People are resistant to change near their homes.''

Tlingit-Haida Regional Housing Authority, the largest provider of affordable housing in Southeast, is planning to spur creation of 25 new homes in Juneau under a tax credit program run by the U.S. Internal Revenue Service.

The arrangement is complicated, but it involves Tlingit-Haida selling tax credits it can't use because of its non-profit status to a for-profit institution, as a way to partially finance the project. In an agreement reached recently, city officials have agreed that the project would be exempt from property taxes as long as Tlingit-Haida retains ownership of the homes in the lease-to-purchase program. The city will receive a payment in lieu of taxes.

No sites for the new homes have been chosen, and it will be next year before ground is broken, said Dennis Richert, manager of development, construction and maintenance for the housing authority.

It remains to be seen whether the project is a single subdivision or housing on scattered sites, Richert said. It's possible homes would be ready for occupancy in spring 2002, he said.

The income limit for program participants is $32,600, which is 50 percent of Juneau's median family income, said Ed Phillips, business manager for the housing authority.

For the first 15 years, tenants technically would be renters, paying a maximum of $978 a month, Phillips said.

However, the rental payments would put the tenants in the same position at the end of that term as if they had been paying on a mortgage, and they could seek conventional financing to pay off the balance and complete purchase of the homes from Tlingit-Haida, he said.

The housing authority has a waiting list of 100, and the number usually jumps when a project is actually being scheduled, Richert said. Plenty of demand for affordable housing will remain when it's over, he said.

Said Gilbertson: ``It may be one of those things where you can never have enough.''

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