Creating a new vision for housing in Alaska

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Sep 16, 2009

By Jim Crawford | My Turn,  Juneau Empire

Nearly 4,000 homes in Alaska are “falling apart,” according to Alaska Housing Finance Corporation’s 2008 Housing Assessment. The report says 12,980 homes are needed to replace the overcrowded and substandard houses; 3,972 homes are unsafe, unsanitary and unrepairable.

In 2005, 4,500 homes were labeled as unrepairable. The difference, sadly, is the result of a change in sampling and refocus of the report from units to residents. No progress was noted for thousands of Alaskans who live in unsafe, unsanitary and substandard housing.

I hoped HUD’s Neighborhood Revitalization Program funding would start replacing unlivable housing. However, aside from the continuing focus in Mountain View, nothing much happened with the $19.6 million. Neighborhood Revitalization could purchase only vacant foreclosed homes. All those homes that are occupied but unsafe continue to decay, except for those mobile homes and cabins that burn and kill people. AHFC blames HUD. HUD blames Congress. Alaskans die.

Neither HUD nor AHFC have an effective program to acquire, relocate, remove, renovate or replace dilapidated housing. They just report on it.

Alaska also has twelve regional housing authorities that use BIA NAHASDA funds, (Native American Housing Assistance and Self Determination Act). These can be used to acquire, remove or renovate all dilapidated housing. The Denali Commission also helps in rural areas. Urban, non-Native housing operators need not apply.

In the 1950s, HUD had an urban renewal program. HUD tore down shanties and rebuilt housing; selling to families with FHA financing and improving the private stock. Urban renewal fostered commercial buildings as well. Crime-infested bars on lower Fourth Avenue in Anchorage were bulldozed under urban renewal.

Today, AHFC proudly proclaims its dividends to Alaska. About $1.5 billion in profits have been diverted from housing to state overhead since 1986. While thousands of Alaskans, urban and rural, live in squalor, AHFC’s mission goes unmet. AHFC celebrated $35 million in profits last year.

AHFC’s mission is “To provide Alaskans access to safe, quality, affordable housing.” Not another dime should be diverted to government overhead until the death traps and fire hazards are gone from Alaska’s housing. About 4,000 homes, all tinderboxes, are just waiting for a match. Bad housing kills people every year.

Governments get into a habit of reporting problems instead of solving them. Last year’s Housing Assessment indicates 63 percent of the state’s unrepairable housing is located in rural Alaska. The Legislature should task the 12 regional housing authorities with the correction and fund it from 63 percent of the housing profits of Alaska Housing. Working with urban non-profits, the Legislature should require AHFC to implement an urban acquisition, rehabilitation and/or replacement program that knocks down unsafe, unsanitary housing and replaces it with new housing units for sale or rent. Nonprofits such as Habitat for Humanity should be encouraged to apply. 37 percent of the AHFC profits from housing should be plowed back into fixing urban housing.

In comparing 2008 housing through 1991’s and 2005’s Housing Assessments, the report states “The total number of housing units estimated to be overcrowded has hovered around 20,000 units. If we apply this same methodology to the 2008 housing assessment we will arrive at a number that is just under 20,000 (18,428 to be exact.)”

For 27 years, since 1991, Alaska’s overcrowded and unsafe housing has not changed. That defines mission failure.

Incredibly, the assessment concludes: “It is not possible that all of the housing needed to alleviate overcrowding and substandard housing will occur in one building season or even in ten. Even if the funding were available to build all of the needed units, it would take considerable time to get the job done. For this reason an estimate of gross cost is not terribly meaningful.”

After studying this problem since 1991, AHFC has yet to define a solution or a cost to correct unsafe housing in Alaska.

The Legislature should examine AHFC’s mission. It may be time for a new mission for AHFC. A mission that includes housing solutions defined in dollars, days and contracts to completion: a mission with a strategic plan that eradicates unsafe housing statewide. That might be a mission worthy of our $1.7 billion capital investment in AHFC.

•  Jim Crawford is a third generation Alaskan and the former deputy executive director of Alaska State Housing Authority, the predecessor to AHFC. He is a Southcentral real estate broker and developer who welcomes feedback. He can be reached at C21jcrawford@aol.com.

Reprinted with permission from the author

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11 Responses to “Creating a new vision for housing in Alaska”

  1. anonymousbloggers Says:

    “Governments get into a habit of reporting problems instead of solving them. Last year’s Housing Assessment indicates 63 percent of the state’s unrepairable housing is located in rural Alaska. The Legislature should task the 12 regional housing authorities with the correction and fund it from 63 percent of the housing profits of Alaska Housing.”

    ——

    Jim,

    This is right on target!

    As an outsider I’m finding that Alaska’s answer to everything rural is order a study to develop a report with rural in the title or appoint a committee or advisory panel with rural in its name.

    We’re hearing the sucking sound of that arctic vacuum way down here in Florida.

    Thanks for your vision!
    Jane

  2. Secret TalkerΔ Says:

    Interesting and important information-thank you for this excellent post.

  3. Kath the Scrappy Says:

    Maybe they ought to take a look at the fast track building going on in Eagle AK. Sure, those new cabins may not be the Taj Mahal or as large as the previous buildings, but I would bet they’re not the mold ridden, fire kindling that’s probably existing. Less expense when buying cabin kits in bulk and less labor intensive if they’re pretty much the same design.

    With proper insulation installed during the build (perhaps utilizing some of the Stimulus insulation funding), it would seriously reduce the amount of fuel expended and green house effects.

    http://mds.mennonite.net/projects/project_eagle_ak/

    But it sounds as if AHFC’s sole “mission” is only to acquire profits and blather about reports, instead.

  4. Kath the Scrappy Says:

    In the link for MDS I provided above, be sure to look at the photo gallery for a sense of the size and construction efforts.

  5. UgaVic Says:

    The more I live, read and deal with Alaskan issues, espeically ‘rural’ I wonder if there is ANYTHING that is done WELL in the rural areas of Alaska?

    I see this in the villages, both mine and others, and it makes me sick. To see families living in shacks, not homes, shacks that most would never believe housed anything let alone people.

    Eagle does give something to look at as a model.

    Let’s get with it Alaska, this is just plain wrong.

    Jim, thank you for providing us with this information!!

  6. Jim Says:

    First, don’t confuse me with the Jim above who shared his good article with Anonymous Bloggers. I’m the other Jim.

    Somehow we must define and verify the quality of rural home construction. Municipalities use building codes. Building codes and building inspections are not perfect, but most Alaskans who die in house fires perish in homes that were not built in areas that have building codes. The recent tragedy in Copper Center illustrates this.

    Especially if we don’t use building codes, how do we verify if rural homes are safe? What is an acceptable substitute? Too much burden is placed on the State fire inspector, but even the fire inspector doesn’t have domain over private rural dwellings.

    How would it be possible to economically verify the safety of rural home construction? The State just doesn’t do it, and our former governor made a big deal out of opposing building codes when she vetoed weatherization stimulus funds.

    By the way, is a single dollar of weatherization stimulus funds headed to rural Alaska? The current governor indicated they were going to use those funds on big public buildings. Are any of those structures in the bush?

  7. Jim Says:

    By the way, I can’t get Mr. Crawford’s email address to work.

  8. anonymousbloggers Says:

    Jim,

    My error – try it now.

    Jane

  9. Jim Crawford Says:

    Jim,

    The regional housing authorities could and should be the control on construction quality in rural areas of the state. They have a much better feel for local conditions and capabilities. I don’t think the state of Alaska should necessarily be involved in the design construction or completion of individual homes. I’d be happy if we just stop diverting housing profits to other purposes.

    A lot of the problem in rural and urban areas is with mobile homes that should be bulldozed as firetraps. Unsafe housing is a statewide problem. These fires kill Alaskans of all walks of life. The only consistency is that the occupants don’t know they can do better.

    Jim

  10. anonymousbloggers Says:

    This article from Petroleum News came in as a Google ‘Rural Alaska News” alert.

    http://tinyurl.com/n4k4q2

    It’s a Q & A about Builders Choice Inc., an Anchorage company that builds prefabricated buildings, mainly for the oil industry. These excerpts summarize what the do. Notice what their biggest challenge will be in the next five years.

    Q. What do you most want people to know about your company?

    A. We are an all Alaska Company dedicated to promoting Alaska jobs and vendors as we construct modular buildings and engineered building components. We can build structures in a controlled environment which enables us to provide our customers with high-quality buildings and control costs more effectively in rural Alaska as well as local area.

    Q. What is the company’s primary business sector?

    A. Our primary business sector is oil and gas, mining, building developers and general contractors. We offer building materials and engineered components, wall panels and trusses, to builders as well as complete buildings constructed in modular format and delivered up to 95 percent complete.

    Q. What do you see as your company’s biggest challenge in the next five years?

    A. The economy, we need to have oil and gas producers motivated to get out and explore more of our natural resources, as well as having a gas line project move forward. We are in the housing business, whether that is residential builders building homes or our plant building homes, camps or hotels. We need to get development moving again.

    So, if the company is not getting business from the oil companies, why not manufacture low-cost, prefabricated homes in Anchorage built to certain specifications? They could be built subject to safety standards that could be easily monitored by inspectors/enforcers in Anchorage.

    Rural residents could the be hired to complete the homes under the watch of regional authorities. Just a suggestion.

    Jane

  11. Jim Says:

    Thanks Jane. Jim gave me the website for the Alaska Housing Authorities:

    http://www.aahaak.org/members.html

    I’ll try to learn more. I guess there are inspection and safety standards for homes that are sold with home loans, but I don’t know about renters or other situations.

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