New housing group considers dry cabins, zoning, tax incentives
December 9, 2021
Should the Haines Borough have more dry cabins? Tax incentives for developers? Another low-income apartment complex?
These are among the questions preoccupying members of the borough’s new housing working group, which met for the first time on Dec. 1. The group, which was created this fall by the Finance Committee to address the borough’s housing needs, identified two primary topics of concern: immediate housing for homeless residents and long-term affordable housing.
The seven members of the working group set out to determine the most pressing housing issues and to identify potential solutions. While members largely agreed on the problems—such as rising rental and real estate prices—there was some disagreement about the extent to which the borough should focus on developing new properties or maximizing use of existing buildings.
“It’s not that we don’t have housing. It’s that we don’t have available housing,” working group member Rob Goldberg said. “I think that’s a problem that’s more acute at the moment than new construction or new borough subdivision...The issue is: how do we get those people who can’t afford rent under a roof?” Goldberg suggested putting out a PSA to snowbird homeowners and contacting vacation rental owners and lodges to see if they would consider offering cheap monthly rentals in the winter.
“Rob, I really have to disagree that the existing structures are going to fulfill the needs,” said member Sally Andersen. “I saw people...begging online for housing. The people who have empty houses—they don’t hope that they can find renters, or they don’t want to or need to...Yes, technically there are enough buildings. But it’s just not the right buildings for the right people.”
Member Sierra Jimenez said Southeast Alaska Independent Living (SAIL), where she works as assistant director, last month assisted three unsheltered residents and about 10 people who were couch surfing or couldn’t sustainably afford their rentals. While the three homeless people either found housing or left town, Jimenez said she knows of several residents who are struggling to afford rent. Members agreed that a priority should be to find solutions for people who require immediate housing assistance and later work on the borough’s long-term needs.
In particular, the working group homed in on an idea to develop dry cabins. “I think 10 dry cabins that could be rented at $500 a month would change this community,” said assembly member Tyler Huling, who described Haines’ rental market as “cutthroat” and said she’s aware of people who moved out of town after having trouble finding somewhere to live. Huling, 30, the youngest member of the group, said several of her peers would gladly live in a 600- or 800-square-foot cabin without running water to save on rent.
The idea to develop cabins could parallel or morph into something similar to a project by the Sitka Community Land Trust, which is building more than a dozen small cottages to be sold at marked-down prices (about $260,000) to middle-income families.
Members identified other possible housing solutions, like changing zoning code to accommodate more mother-in-law apartments and multi-family housing units, creating tax incentives for subdivision developers and building another low-income housing complex, like the 30-unit Dusty Trails, which is federally subsidized.
Borough planner Dave Long said there are 240 lots in the townsite that could be developed. Under current zoning code, only 90 lots would allow multi-unit housing. Whether the borough or a developer could receive federal subsidies for low- or mixed-income housing, as Dusty Trails does, is unclear.
The working group’s next meetings will be devoted to a single topic, like developer incentives or zoning.