Ketchikan assembly considers options to deal with housing crisis

Retiree Edna Glines shows a photo of her cat, Thumper, at her downtown Ketchikan apartment in March. Glines says she had to give up her beloved pet when she found out her lease wouldn’t be renewed, forcing her out of town. (Eric Stone/KRBD)

Finding accommodation in Ketchikan can be difficult, and it doesn’t get any easier. Ketchikan officials are pursuing a wide variety of ideas to address the housing crisis, ranging from short-term rental permits to new roads and residential developments.

Housing is scarce in Ketchikan. Retired school district janitor Edna Glines learned last month that she would lose her apartment when she received a letter from her landlord advising her that her lease would not be renewed.

“I have been here for 26 years. It was my house,” Glines told KRBD last month.

Glines says she paid $650 a month for the one-bedroom downtown.

She is not alone. Six other households in the Main Street apartment building in Glines were also forced to move when they received similar notices. Tenants in a triplex just up the street struggled when their landlord gave them a month to vacate after refusing to issue new leases for their low-cost apartments.

Glines says she can’t afford to stay in town.

“Everything is so high – $1,500, $1,600. I can’t afford this rent on a low income, so I’m moving to Kentucky. I had no choice,” she said.

Ketchikan officials notice the housing crisis. The city government of Ketchikan, which issues building and utility permits, is looking for ways to speed up and reduce the cost of new housing development. And the Ketchikan Borough Assembly, which controls land use and zoning, is considering other ways to increase the number of homes and apartments available in the community.

Borough planning director Richard Harney told the assembly during an April 18 business session that affordable housing in Ketchikan was disappearing.

“As these properties become valuable, that means the price goes up. It also means the demand for them goes up and the supply goes down. That’s where we are. We’ve gone from a housing problem to a housing crisis in just a few years,” Harney said.

Harney checked off a few ideas to address the lack of housing. One short-term proposal is to regulate Airbnbs and other short-term rentals, which Harney says have boomed in recent years. He says there were 160 vacation rentals listed in 2020, up 71% from the previous year. This means fewer long-term rentals are available for housing.

Harney says some vacation rentals don’t have business licenses or pay hotel or sales taxes. He says the borough could require short-term rentals to be registered and licensed.

He said another short-term option to increase housing supply would be to temporarily ease restrictions on recreational vehicles.

But short-term adjustments won’t solve the larger problem, officials said — easing the long-term crisis will require more homes on the market. Deputy Borough Director Cynna Gubatayao suggested investing in infrastructure to encourage housing construction. She says about $4.2 million for road expansion could open about 60 currently inaccessible housing sites in the Mud Bight area, although there is no guarantee that homes there could be affordable housing.

“If we can find a way to get a road in this subdivision, then those plots will start to be developed. Everything will be at market rate,” Gubatayao said. “Current owners can choose to sell their plots to someone else and allow them to grow. They can choose to grow. But we’re going to start an activity there.

Gubatayao says a more expensive option is the Mountain Point subdivision, which has about 80 sites and would cost about $10 million to develop. She says they are looking for funding opportunities, including grants from the Alaska Legislature.

Further, Gubatayao says the borough could create a subsidized workforce housing subdivision.

“If it’s possible, it may be the best solution. Because then we can figure out how to target those first-time home buyers, the people who work in families — the ones we know can’t get housing,” Gubatayao said.

The borough assembly voted unanimously to set aside $7 million from reserves to establish a housing capital fund to develop subdivisions, housing, and roads. The assembly also voted in favor of a $50,000 grant from the Denali Federal Planning Commission.

A final option suggested by Vice Mayor AJ Pierce is to simply sell the borough land. She says the borough is allowed to sell a property at 85% of the appraised value and suggested offering lots at that price with buyers selected through a lottery.

“It has been discussed a lot over the years. I think it’s time we had the opportunity to work with the staff and look at the feasibility of this,” Pierce said.

The assembly voted unanimously to consider the idea at a future meeting.

Additional reporting by KRBD’s Maria Dudzak

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