In Girdwood, Alaska, we will long remember the snow storm of December 6, just two months ago. But it won’t be for school cancellations. We will remember it as at night, dozens of residents drove down a snowy highway to testify at a public meeting – about housing.
Residents across the West will understand why so many came out that snowy night. A proposed development, called Holtan Hills, would expand our city’s footprint but include almost nothing affordable for teachers, firefighters, servers or others who are the lifeblood of our community and drive its economy. .
With no railings to support local homeownership, secondary real estate investors would likely gobble up the project’s predominantly high-end units. This is already happening, with most avoiding the long-term rental needs of a few thousand people in this south-central Alaska community. New owners often offer nightly rentals or simply leave their homes unoccupied.
That would mean more empty homes in a city with a severe housing shortage. The dozens of people who testified that night and the hundreds who wrote letters described the impacts.
Among them is Emma, who runs a fishing boat with her husband, and whose young adult daughter cannot find a place to rent in the town where she grew up and now works. And Amanda, the pizzeria, overwhelmed with trying to help its employees find accommodation, including the 65-year-old man whose landlord recently kicked him out on short notice.
Erin described giving up her long-held dream of raising a family here after 11 years of devoting her talents to non-profit youth education programs. She reminded me of Autumn, my daughter’s former piano teacher, who recently moved away after years of teaching music to neighborhood kids. She had been unable to find stable housing.
Such stories swirled on that winter’s night from the heroes every mountain community knows – those who clean rentals, provide health care, build homes and teach our children to talk, spell, ski. and say “thank you”. Business owners were also on hand, explaining how the lack of accessible accommodation leads to employee shortages that reduce opening hours, leaving fewer services for visitors.
Some who didn’t speak that night included local workers who sleep in their cars or in drafty cabins on the outskirts of town. Nor have we heard from the Filipino parents of my daughter’s close playmate, who are trying hard to stay in the city where their accounting jobs are and their daughter is thriving.
Dozens of us have pointed out how communities across the West have fought similar battles for a generation now. We talked about Whitefish, Tahoe, Breckenridge, Boise and other towns. We explained their use of reasonable restrictions on deeds, limits on overnight rentals, incentives that promote local homeownership, and developer concessions. All have helped local workers obtain housing.
I know the benefits. Living in Colorado in the 1990s, I accepted a financial incentive to put a deed restriction on my modest condo. After my wife and I sold the condo, the payment became start-up capital for our first home. Meanwhile, the condo still holds a deed restriction that helps locals enter the market. With such reasonable measures, developers could still earn a lot of money while workers had access to housing.
Someone else who didn’t show that night was the developer, who instead dropped a guest column in the state’s largest newspaper slandering critics of his project.
Some of our elected officials were just as indifferent. One gleefully suggested that someone just needed to build a hardware store in town so construction costs could come down. Another asked why our city didn’t solve the housing problem sooner. Others asked residents about how many more homes it would take to solve the problem.
Of course, as in many Western communities, the problem is not a real shortage of houses. It’s the money blizzard that second home speculators and the like can throw at any property that comes on the market.
The meeting lasted almost until midnight, when snow covered the cars outside. I imagined this must have been the scene two decades ago, when real estate developers in Western mountain towns spent nights winning seemingly small wins. But those victories are now the proven programs that can help communities today.
We just need elected officials to understand that people can’t work here if they don’t have housing.
Lydon is a contributor to Writers on the Range, writersontherange.org, an independent nonprofit dedicated to stimulating conversation about the West. He writes in Alaska.