How will different needs be prioritized?

Haines resident James Casper Donaldson, 66, has been living outside for more than two months. Even though he receives monthly payments as a senior citizen and disabled U.S. Army veteran, he can’t afford rent in Haines.

“What I was looking for is a place to stay a month at a time, not two weeks,” said Donaldson, who has been sleeping on and off at Portage Cove campground, which has a two-week stay maximum. “Every two weeks you have to move,” Donaldson said.

As winter bears down on Haines, Donaldson is hoping to find a place soon. He said he’s seeking a stable setup—somewhere with a bathroom, heating and “a hot shower that lasts more than three minutes.”

Donaldson, who goes by Casper, is one of at least three people in Haines who currently lack housing, and dozens more residents are living in units they can’t afford long-term, according to staff at Southeast Alaska Independent Living (SAIL), a non-profit that helps people with disabilities find housing and work. “For the last six months, we haven’t been able to find a single unit anywhere,” said SAIL assistant director Sierra Jimenez.

Housing has long been a topic of discussion in Haines, but real estate prices have risen this year and the rental market has been especially tight. A number of factors might be contributing to the squeeze on housing, including increased demand due to the highway construction project and displacement of residents after the December storm, as well as a lack of multi-unit housing and rising construction costs, among other things.

It’s hard to be certain about market dynamics in Haines in part because the state doesn’t analyze housing data from the borough, like it does for several bigger municipalities. “We don’t have a really good sense of what the actual market is on the ground in Haines,” said Rob Kreiger, research analyst at Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development. State data show vacancy rates plummeted across 10 surveyed communities, not including Haines. Haines officials, real estate agents, landlords, renters and other residents seem to agree that there is a housing shortage in town.

The Haines Borough Assembly tasked the Finance Committee earlier this month to determine ways to incentivize housing development, but some residents have stressed that there’s a difference between affordable housing and housing in general, and that building subdivisions might not address the needs of people in Donaldson’s position.

The Finance Committee decided last week to create a working group to identify and address Haines’ housing needs. Central to their task is defining “housing shortage,” a phrase that officials have applied to Haines often without elucidating what they mean and whom they hope to help. Is the issue a lack of options for low-income renters? Or are there too few subdivisions? Are there not enough multi-unit housing complexes? Or should there be more single-family homes?

Pam Long of Haines Real Estate said low inventory, low interest rates and consistent demand and inflation have collided to heat up Haines’ housing market. “Before (2018) we were on just kind of a steady mellow sort of growth, and we started to see home prices increase last year and continuing this year,” Long said. “We’d get a listing, and we’d sell it… We’d get another listing, and we’d sell it.” Some would sell in a day, Long said.

Local landlord Chris Thorgesen said his vacancy rate decreased by half this year, while he had to raise rent for some units to keep up with inflation and rising utility costs. Jason Ghan, resident manager at Dusty Trails, a 30-unit low-income housing complex in Haines, said the waitlist there has been steady at eight to 10 people since he took over in February. Three units have turned over since then.

“Over the course of my time in Haines, I’ve really seen there used to be reasonably priced rentals available for folks, and as time has gone on that just doesn’t seem to be an option anymore,” said SAIL independent living advocate Janine Allen, who has lived in Haines for 11 years and is helping Donaldson locate housing. (Donaldson signed a release of information with SAIL, allowing Allen to speak about his case with the CVN.) Allen remembers visiting four or five places when she was looking for a rental six years ago. “You had selection,” Allen said. “Whereas now if there’s one or two places available for rent, that’s kind of lucky.”

Nationwide, researchers have observed that real estate prices are soaring and that affordable rentals, particularly in rural vacation towns, are increasingly hard to find. Roughly 64 percent of housing permitted across the country since the 2008 financial crisis has been single-family homes, due in large part to restrictive local zoning policies, according to a recent White House report.

Multi-family residences, which provide more housing and tend to be more affordable than single-family homes, are permitted in two zoning areas in the Haines townsite: “multiple residential” and “mixed-use rural.” While very little of the townsite is the former, much of it is the latter. Still, only two residential building permits since 2009 in Haines have been for multi-unit housing, said borough planner Dave Long, who is married to Pam. The average annual number of permits for single-family homes in Haines has increased gradually over the last decade.

Long proposed four housing solutions to the Finance Committee: examine local zoning to provide more space for multi-unit housing; examine the borough’s vacant land inventory and create development incentives; expand utilities to make more lots more appealing to buyers and developers; and train a local workforce to build homes.

The Finance Committee, at its Oct. 12 meeting, considered establishing a development incentive, like one adopted in 2020 by Anchorage to allow property tax deferrals of up to five years for subdivision developers. Committee members also said they would scope out funding opportunities from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Sally Andersen, director of Haines Economic Development Corporation, urged the committee to consider the impact of Airbnb and vacation rentals on long-term housing availability. She suggested having a discussion about limiting the number of Airbnbs in town.

There are currently 61 listings in Haines on, up from 50 in 2017, but several of those are rooms at lodges or hotels, not homes. Fifty properties are listed on (Vacation Rental By Owner, a rival service to Airbnb), but properties can be listed on both sites.

Airbnb and Vrbo hosts, along with hotels and bed-and-breakfasts, have to pay a 4% borough lodging tax. The borough’s total lodging tax revenue jumped from $71,928 in 2011 to a peak of $129,172 in 2019, before dropping considerably over the last two years, likely due to decreased tourism during the pandemic. (The borough doesn’t separate vacation rental tax from hotel tax revenue.)

“It’s kind of this urban legend that ‘Oh my gosh, the vacation rentals are squeezing out long-term rentals,’” said Randa Szymanski, a longtime Haines resident who has been in the vacation rental business in the borough since 2005. “Maybe it’s happening in big cities but it’s not happening in Haines,” Szymanski wrote in an email to the CVN.

Szymanski handles reservations for 28 rentals on Airbnb, five fewer than she did five years ago, and seven of them are rooms in lodges, not homes. Szymanski said that none of those rentals used to be long-term units. She also noted that at least two former Haines motels—Thunderbird and Mountain View—have been converted into long-term rental apartments.

Szymanski said that vacation rentals benefit the local economy and increase the borough’s tax base. “Vacation rentals bring out of town guests into town, bringing ‘new’ dollars into the community. Long term rentals simply circulate the dollars already in town,” Szymanski wrote in her email.

As Donaldson moves from campsite to campsite, he awaits word on a warm place to stay. Seven years ago, he slept at the Salvation Army for a few nights before he was urged to seek space at a shelter in Juneau, where he encountered drugs and “a lot of things I didn’t want to deal with.”

He moved to Anchorage, but at the shelter there he said two pickpockets flanked him while he slept at night. After spending years at a veteran therapy center in Scottsdale, Arizona, he moved back to Haines in 2020.

“I’m spiritually led to stay here,” Donaldson said. “I’m a Haines resident.”