Anchorage Summit Sharpens Draft Plan for Housing Strategies
Charles Marohn, founder and president of Strong Towns, told the Housing Action Summit that incremental steps are more effective than reaching for the “next big thing.”
Housing is arguably the first link in a chain of solutions to Alaska’s workforce problem. To attract workers to the state—and to entice Alaskans not to migrate away—the cost of renting or owning a home must come under control. Members of the Anchorage Assembly, as they craft a Housing Strategic Plan for the municipality, hosted a Housing Action Summit at UAA to explore options.
Not Keeping Pace
Seemingly, out-migration ought to fix the housing problem automatically by depressing demand, but that’s not happening. According to Nolan Klouda, executive director of the UAA Center for Economic Development, demand remains high. “We have more households than we had ten years ago. Why would that be? Because less of our population consists of families with children: you have kids, you have more people living in a home. More of our population consists of adults,” Klouda says.
Furthermore, even a steady population needs new construction to replace housing stock that ages and deteriorates. Yet with only 400 new units built each year, Anchorage is not keeping pace. Klouda says inventory is down by 72 percent since 2019, while the average list price is up by $109,000. A study by McKinley Research Group for the Anchorage Community Development Authority (ACDA) found only 48 units for sale in Anchorage at an “attainable” price, defined as less than $300,000.
For solutions, the study compared Anchorage to places that had similar problems a decade ago: Bellingham, Washington; Bend, Oregon; Boise, Idaho; and Missoula, Montana. All are now in recovery, and ACDA Executive Director Mike Robbins says the tools tried in those four cities might help here. Those include more robust public funding for infrastructure like sidewalks; adjusting setback requirements on residential lots; hiring a housing liaison with more authority than a clerk; and speeding up the permitting process. “It’s easy to blame your problems on someone else,” Robbins says. “[Permitting] is only one small part.”
Another tool is an areawide tax incentive for multifamily housing. The Assembly is already considering measures to remove impediments that add expense to 3-plexes and 4-plexes. Chris Schutte, a consultant on community development, notes that zoning and building codes apply higher standards to those structures—and not simply because of size. He points to a 4-plex built during the ‘80s pipeline boom that fits twelve bedrooms in a smaller footprint than a four-bedroom house that is not subject to the higher standard.
Schutte likes the idea of “gentle density,” or putting multi-family housing on single-family lots. “It’s a way to introduce more housing units, more housing options in a lot of already developed neighborhoods. The beauty of this type of infill redevelopment is the utilities basically already are there,” Schutte says.
The Next Smallest Thing
Pointedly, the term “suburban sprawl” did not come up during the summit. Even keynote speaker Charles Marohn, who has been called “one of the ten most influential urbanists of all time,” cautioned against prioritizing density. He believes it has led to bad design.
A civil engineer and land use planner, Marohn has traveled the country spreading his message that rapid development in the late 20th Century left cities with more public infrastructure liability than the tax base can support. By appearing at the Housing Summit, he has now visited all fifty states.
Marohn and the nonprofit he founded, Strong Towns, advocate an incremental approach: observe how people live, notice where they struggle, then make it a little better. Marohn says, “Ask yourself, ‘What is the next smallest thing we can do right now to address that struggle?’ Not, ‘What is the comprehensive study we should do?’ Not, ‘What is the federal grant?’ Not, ‘What is the project that would fix this once and for all?’ But what is the thing we can do right now with the stuff we have on hand?”
Since the city has little control over construction costs, financing, or land availability, Klouda recommends focusing on two factors that policy makers can influence: zoning and permitting. Along those lines, the Anchorage Assembly has already taken some steps: abolishing minimum parking requirements, allowing for “accessory dwelling units” on residential properties, and enabling the conversion of hotels into housing.
Building More Stuff
The Housing Strategic Plan is another step. A draft version has been in the works for a couple of months. West Anchorage Assembly Member Anna Brawley told attendees that the summit was part of the process of testing assumptions and identifying priorities for action.
Marohn was able to glance at the draft before his keynote address. “Almost every strategic plan that cities do is horrible. They’re too long, they’re too wordy, they’re not focused,” he said. “Yours is actually really good. I think it gets at a lot of what’s going on, and it has a lot of good strategies.”
Those include removing barriers to infill and new construction, encouraging reuse and redevelopment, developing funding streams for infrastructure, focusing incentives on increasing housing stock, maintaining affordability, and streamlining government processes.
“What I love about your strategic plan is that it focuses on building more stuff,” Marohn said. “At the end of the day, the more stuff we can build—particularly at entry-level price points—the more our market will be locally responsive.”
Brawley added that housing is an “everyone problem” that property owners with no intention to sell or buy should be concerned about. “Really what we’re talking about is where our kids are going to live, our grandkids,” she said. “Where our employees are going to live, our teachers, our first responders, our snowplow drivers.”
The Housing Summit was part of Anchorage Housing Action Week. The day before, the Alaska Builders Association held an event where contractors described the need for 20,000 to 30,000 new housing units to overcome the shortage. That would take more than fifty years, at the current rate of construction.