Empire Editorial: Lack of affordable housing darkens Juneau's future

Posted: Sunday, September 14, 2003

A key litmus test for any community is the degree to which affordable housing can be sustained. For a variety of reasons Juneau has become one of the most expensive places in the United States to live.

The dream of home ownership for many young and working-class families has been placed out of reach. Residential building lots in Juneau typically cost around $60,000, three times as much as comparable land in the Matanuska-Susitna borough. New home construction costs are also very high.

Even though 90 percent of the City and Borough of Juneau's 3,250 square miles is comprised of water, wetlands, steep mountains and glacial ice caps located within the Tongass National Forest, a good deal of land for residential development does exist, some of it within the existing urban service boundary.

Certainly the high price of housing is driven by Juneau's remoteness and high quality-of-life values, but the problem is exacerbated by other factors that can be controlled.

The far-reaching social and economic impacts resulting from lack of land available for affordable residential development are beginning to catch the attention of city leaders.

City officials are meeting with homebuilders and real-estate brokers and agents to find solutions to the problems. The discussion centers on ways to ease zoning and permitting restrictions, and streamline the entire permitting process to be more responsive to the risk and investment developers assume every time they plan a project.

In many cases, legitimate residential building projects have been abandoned even before they get started because the entrenched uncertainty and incongruities of the permitting process simply make the risk too great.

It has also become increasingly difficult to gain approval for high-density residential projects. A case in point is the new area the CBJ added to the road system on Lena Point. The plan called for the development of a subdivision featuring small, affordable lots, but the concept was rejected by Lena neighborhood residents in favor of fewer, more expensive lots.

Other communities in Southeast Alaska face the same problem. Skagway is growing and also has a very serious shortage of affordable building sites. Community leaders there are working on a plan to add more affordable (but still expensive) land for residential development.

The problem in Juneau is not limited to land for residential use. A severe shortage of land for commercial development also exists, along with the need to update commercial zoning regulations.

Juneau is fortunate in one respect: The annual growth rate of about 1 percent is steady and manageable.

Local growth issues are addressed thoroughly in the CBJ's Comprehensive Plan. The plan provides far-reaching policies, methodologies and guidelines for dealing with the very issues we face today. It is, however, long overdue for updating, and many of the actions prescribed years ago have never been undertaken.

The 1984 version of the CBJ's Comprehensive Plan anticipated a population growth rate of 3 to 4 percent annually, based in part on the assumption that three mining companies would add 1,000 jobs to the local market and that other resource-based industry would contribute to growth.

The plan was updated in 1995 and it is available to read on the city's Web site. The updated plan contained this framing statement: "It is the policy of the CBJ to build a sustainable local and global community which persists over generations and is sufficiently far-seeing, flexible and wise to maintain its economic, social, ecological and governmental support systems."

The Comprehensive Plan identified the west side of Douglas Island as an area suitable to absorb growth. Development of this area could in effect greatly relieve many of the growth pains the community is now experiencing.

A variety of building sites from high-density, affordable lots and condominiums to upscale beachfront properties could be included in the plan. The golf course and the second-crossing projects are moving forward and electric power lines have been extended out past the end of the road.

Eaglecrest would also receive a strong boost from development and improved access on the north end of the island.

Adding further infrastructure such as roads, sewer and water will be more problematic and require a working partnership among the city, private developers, Goldbelt and other stakeholders. Of course, abundant public process will guide the direction of development.

It is time to get serious about making land for residential and commercial use available for the future.

The Comprehensive Plan addresses the need for important amenities like green space, bike and walking trails, historic preservation, wetland protection, waterfront planning and development of cultural assets.

Juneau has done well in meeting this part of the mission over the years. However, all of this will be at risk if future generations cannot afford to live and work in Juneau.

Don Smith



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