My Turn: Juneau needs higher housing densities

Posted: Monday, November 15, 2004

I have had many conversations with the city regarding the severe housing shortage in Juneau and to be honest, and to borrow a phrase from Mike Barnacle, "I get so frustrated I want to set my hair on fire." So I have decided to speak directly to our community.

There are almost no houses, condominiums or townhomes left for sale. As demand is far outstripping supply, prices are rising at breakneck speed. There is a small vacancy for rentals due to low interest rates allowing upward mobility. When that vacancy is gone, look out. And when interest rates rise to 8 or 9 percent, this town will freeze up.

The housing crisis problem, in a nutshell, is being caused by a lack of easily buildable land and a lack of land zoned for building townhomes, condominiums and apartment buildings. Consequently, the only solutions are a massive increase in density zoning, where the sewer is available, and spot zoning. The city resists these solutions. We are almost out of easily buildable land in the valley and the city is squandering the last little bit of land with very low densities like one unit per acre. Outside the valley, site preparation runs double, triple and more than valley land, and additionally, one has to put in a $10,000 to $20,000 septic system, as there is no sewer.

New homes, now, and in the future, cannot be built for less than $300,000 to $400,000, townhomes (attached) like Park Place for less than $250,000 to $275,000 and condos like Crow Hill for $150,000. Therefore in the future, affordable housing for the preponderance of Juneau's citizens will be townhomes, condominiums and apartment living.

Currently, the only housing being built are $300,000 to $500,000 homes, which help few. Instead of the city spending their time trying to provide land to build townhomes, condominiums and apartments, they are spending it on cottage and cluster housing, which is the most expensive housing one can build and does not solve the problem at hand. For purposes of a reality check: a new fourplex will cost $700,000, if one can find land. Ask yourself what rents will need to be to service that debt?

The city seems to fight tooth and nail against increasing densities and allowing spot zoning and those are our only outs. And even if the city does an about-face on these issues it will still only give us some breathing room until we can figure out what to do longer term, and prices will continue to rise no matter what the city does. The city is five to 10 years behind in its planning.

If the city fails to increase density where it can, then we will be risking a new capital move effort because of a lack of housing for the Legislature, and much, much higher housing prices and rents. And we will have a very hard time staffing our hospital, schools and state offices (thus assisting capital creep). Many of our citizens will suffer even more than they are now, trying to find affordable shelter. We are already hearing many stories of people turning down jobs in Juneau as they cannot find housing.

The issue of our dire housing shortage must be understood, appreciated and addressed by our governing bodies in light of the challenges of building in a mountainous rain forest.

Disclosure: I have an application in with the city to increase lot density, for one of my clients, which is how I began researching this problem.

• Chuck Ramage was the principal author of both the first State Plan for Emergency Medical Services and the first State Plan for the Office of Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse and is a former state planner and current Realtor for RE/MAX of Juneau.

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