My turn: We must fix the housing problem

Posted: Friday, September 28, 2007

Today, nearly two thirds of the homes on the market are affordable to only one third of Juneau's population. Seven thousand Juneau households cannot afford the average priced home. We've all heard stories of housing struggles, but what do such numbers mean?

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According to the latest report from the Juneau Economic Development Council, over 2,000 residents under 40 left Juneau from 2000 to 2006. Sure, we've had some unusually long winters, and we can't attribute all these departures to the cost of housing. But in an earlier survey, JEDC asked residents who were thinking about leaving in the next five years why: 46 percent said they couldn't find a home they could afford. That means we can estimate 1,000 younger residents have already left at least partly because of the cost of housing. They are the future of Juneau.

The workforce housing crunch is tight. For professionals between 25 and 35, 80 percent are earning below the median wage. That teaches a quick lesson about the meaning of "low-income": These are the working families and young professionals that keep Juneau running and ensure its future. For younger households, only 8 percent can afford the average detached home. As we hear more stories of employers who can't find enough employees, we're left with a hauntingly simple question: Shouldn't the people who work here be able to afford to live here?

What's more, homelessness is on the rise in Juneau, and the fastest growing demographic is working families. One paycheck can be far short of the cost of a deposit and first month's rent, forcing families to double up or stay in a shelter despite holding down a job. Again, we're left asking: If you work here, shouldn't you be able to afford a home?

The burden of poverty faced by these families isn't just a moral problem. It's an economic problem, because budgets that force families to choose between heat and food leave nothing to invest in their communities. And it's a problem of community vitality, tearing at the fabric that defines Juneau's quality of life. Simply put, we need to solve the housing dilemma to keep Juneau whole.

What can we do to get there? First, we need consensus around the need: That the average home on the market today is unaffordable to more than half of Juneau's population, and that a home affordable to our critical workforce, particularly young professionals, needs to be no more than $200,000. That's far from today's average of $329,000. We need housing below this price tag, too, for all of Juneau's needs, right down to our seniors on social security. But it's a target that our young professionals and working families can relate to. We must also increase the rental supply: Today's average two-bedroom apartment is unaffordable to 47 percent of renters. Half of Juneau's renters are paying too much of their income to rent, keeping them from saving for a home.

Second, we need to focus our energies on concrete policies that get us there. City government, private developers, and non-profits need to work together. The Juneau Assembly has taken first steps by providing new zoning options, a bungalow housing ordinance, and gravel rebates for affordable home construction. As a bigger step, densities will need to go up, as condos and smaller homes, by necessity, will become more standard for first-time homebuyers. Higher density development along transit corridors will be an important investment for private property owners.

Inclusionary zoning, which includes affordable housing as a percentage of a new subdivision, will help ensure the provision of workforce housing. The city's land resources, though scarce, are an ideal place to design and build the kind of developments we want to see. We'll need to leverage the limited funding resources we have to construct affordable rentals, and we'll need to find the best strategies, such as local trust funds, to create new funding.

Finally, we need to advocate for increased Section 8 vouchers that subsidize rents, and work with Juneau's nonprofit housing developers, who cover the full spectrum of housing need.

The solutions aren't simple, but neither is the problem. Let's make tough decisions if need be. The community we know is counting on us.

• Daniel Ungier is the affordable housing advocate for the United Way of Southeast Alaska.

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