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Empire editorial: Economy will take hit if city doesn't act

Posted: Sunday, July 17, 2005

Housing is one of those issues that doesn't get people's blood boiling like gay marriage or who should be allowed to march in the July Fourth parade. But the skyrocketing costs of Juneau homes is one of the things most likely to determine how bright this city's future is.

If people want to prevent the shriveling of our economy, they need to treat the housing situation not as a fact of life but as a serious ailment that needs urgent treatment.

Businesses will increasingly turn away from Juneau if their employees can't afford to live here - or live well here. Want to keep the capital in Juneau? Make sure every time lawmakers and their staffs return to Juneau, they aren't reminded it costs more to live here than any other major city in the state.

Unfortunately, those who have the most power to ease the housing crunch are the ones who have the least need to do anything about it. The squeeze is on middle- and lower-income people, and an escalating market can serve those who already own an ample piece of real estate.

Maybe that's why city officials have done so little - except give lip-service to the housing problem by approving new developments that serve the well-heeled.

City officials have been asked why they aren't releasing more city land, which is desperately needed to ease the shortage of buildable land. The reply: "We don't want to flood the market." They have been asked why they haven't accelerated the extension of sewer lines so more apartments and condos, instead of just houses, can be built. The response: "We don't want to overheat the market."

These responses are inane and reveal a true lack of interest in resolving the problem.

Many of the remedies for the housing problems in Juneau are tied to the city - allowing more homes to be packed into certain areas; minimizing paperwork and permitting for developers; extending sewer lines so land is buildable; selling off city land for housing developments.

But members of the private sector and groups, such as the Juneau Chamber of Commerce and Juneau Economic Development Council, are going to have to hold the city's feet to the fire. They need to push the city into taking action on a multitude of fronts, such as these:

• Make sewer extensions a top priority to areas such as Peterson Hill, near Auke Bay, and north Douglas. Sewers are particularly important to focus on when allocating the 1 percent sales tax, which is up for renewal. The city is looking at pouring more than three times as much money into the Dimond Park Community Center as sewers. While the recreation center is important and should remain in the mix, the city needs to focus on what we need, not just what we want. More money should be diverted to sewers, which would have a direct effect on housing development.

• Make a concerted effort to get more city land on the market. Confer with developers to make sure this serves them, rather than creates competition.

• Loosen requirements for subdivisions, so that some can be built without sidewalks, paved roads, curbs and other ammenities. This will cut the cost of building new neighborhoods and lead to more affordable housing.

• Look at how other communities have streamlined permits and paperwork. Cut out as much red tape as possible.

Housing prices are unlikely to drop, but if more affordable homes are built, the market could cool down so that prices are no longer climbing 12 percent a year.

Developers, business groups and private citizens need to push the city into speeding up all efforts to relieve the housing shortage. The people of Juneau need to take action before the housing problem takes a toll on the economy.



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