Cottage housing not necessarily affordable

Average sticker price for proposed cottages expected to be $300,000

Posted: Thursday, June 26, 2008

More than two years ago, the Juneau Assembly unanimously approved a cottage housing ordinance.

The smaller single-family homes clustered around a common space were supposed to help solve Juneau's chronic shortage of affordable housing, according to some Assembly members.

"That was certainly its purpose," said Assembly member Bob Doll. "That was the Assembly's objective."

But so far, it hasn't happened.

"It's not filling any of our needs," said Scott Ciambor, a member of the city's affordable housing commission and a project manager for United Way of Southeast Alaska.

Only one developer, Bicknell Inc., has applied to build cottage housing in Juneau.

The proposed 22-unit development in the Back Loop area has drawn complaints from neighbors who say their property values will be adversely affected.

The average sticker price for each cottage house, which will be smaller than 1,200 square feet, is expected to be $300,000.

Bicknell builder Dan Miller said the proposed cottage houses will have extra amenities that make them an "upper-level home."

He said Bicknell felt that there was a strong market for the smaller, detached houses, and those buying the new homes might open up housing opportunities elsewhere in Juneau.

But, "There's no way (the cottage housing) ordinance was written to create affordable housing," Miller said.

The language in the cottage housing city code makes no mention of affordability. Instead, the purpose of the law, which was included in the ordinance, was to "provide for development of housing that responds to changing demographics and smaller-sized households" and "support the efficient use of land and higher density in-fill in developed areas."

Confusion about the purpose of cottage housing arose during Bicknell's permitting process.

"I am having difficulty connecting affordable housing to a $300,000-plus price tag, which is what I originally understood this concept was based on," wrote City Assessor Robin Potter in a report.

But City Planner Greg Chaney said he thinks some people in town have incorrectly associated "cottage housing" with "affordable housing."

"The Cottage Housing ordinance was not intended to provide low-income housing; however, due to the density bonuses and strict design requirements, it is intended to provide an alternative style of housing in the mid price range for new homes," Chaney wrote in his report to the city's planning commission.

Mendenhall Valley homeowner Carol Austin, who said her neighbor has indicated he might like to build 18 cottage houses on 1.5 acres of land, said the city was sold a lie by realtors and developers that cottage housing would be affordable. She said developers can make a handsome profit by bypassing zoning laws and putting more houses on less land than is currently permitted.

But Realtor Shawn Paul said he and other realtors told city officials when they were considering the ordinance that cottage housing would not be priced low enough to solve Juneau's low-income housing problems.

He added that the $300,000 price tag for the Bicknell's cottage homes was $100,000 less than the average price for a single family new home currently for sale in town.

"Comparatively, it's not that bad," Paul said.

The city has approved Bicknell's application, and recently rejected an appeal by two developers opposing the development.

Assembly member Merrill Sanford agreed with Doll that one of purposes of the cottage housing ordinance had been to create more affordable housing. Sanford said the rising price of construction was to blame for high housing in general, including cottage housing.

Still, he said, the cottage housing ordinance was worthwhile.

"It fills a niche," Sanford said. "It's not the answer to what we were trying to get to for sure, but it's a start, it's a start in the right direction."

• Contact reporter Alan Suderman at 523-2268 or e-mail

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