Local News

City looks to address vacant land, affordable housing

The City of Sitka will ask for proposals to develop affordable housing on the old City Shops land.

The property is located in the 1400 block of Halibut Point Road and it’s been mostly vacant for years. It’s one of two areas of town that city officials hope to see occupied soon.

During its regular meeting last night, the Assembly asked city staff to draw up what’s called a “request for proposals,” or RFP. The document would be fairly broad. It would ask for housing options and zoning options to develop affordable housing on the old City Shops land.

It wasn’t the only piece of city property that came up last night. Assembly members had a larger conversation the Assembly had about affordable housing. And a good portion of that conversation focused on an area known as “The Benchlands.”

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It can be difficult to find an affordable place to live in Sitka. How difficult? The federal government has a definition for affordable housing. It says members of a household should not pay more than 30 percent of their annual income toward housing. But in Sitka, many do.

“This is what’s really scary to me,” said John Holst. He told the Assembly that in 1990, about 26 percent of Sitka renters exceeded that federal affordability level.

“By the year 2000, it had gone up to 38 (percent) and by the year 2010 it was 60 percent,” he said.

At the start of this decade, a majority of renters in Sitka paid more than 30 percent of their annual income to put a roof over their heads. What’s more? Sitka has a rental vacancy rate of 1.2 percent.

“Statistically, 5 percent is supposed to be a healthy vacancy rate,” Holst said. “Anything close to 1 percent, people are pretty much locked in to where they’re living.”

Holst is part of an ad-hoc committee looking at what the city should do with the Benchlands. It’s a collection of land north of town that the city purchased back in 2007. The city paid about $3 million for the property and dropped another $10 million to develop it.

The hope was to put the land up for sale and make some money in the process. But lately, the city has simply been hoping to break even. In December, the city tried to auction off some lots in the area, but had no takers.

Holst’s committee came up with seven options for the Assembly. They range from the status quo, which is continuing to sell lots in Jacob Circle, to selling all the Benchlands at auction with a minimum bid of $3 million.

“Pick a priority that you’re comfortable with, and then go down the list one more,” he said. “Go to the next one that makes you just a little bit uncomfortable, because I think we need to be doing something that is going to change the status quo.”

There are pros and cons to each option, of course, in how much control the city has, in how much money they get back, and in whether the sale addresses affordability.

“There is no one single simple solution to the affordability thing. I’m convinced of that,” Holst said. “I was involved in a lot of that with SEDA, as well as on the Assembly. There was a big push when I was on the Assembly to do that. We hired somebody to do it. And then we didn’t listen to them. But the more you decide on what the land development is going to be – the more control you take – the less likely that you’re going to have somebody who’s going to want to come in and do it.”

Some Assembly members favored Option 7, which was to sell the entire Benchlands. The idea of getting the city out of the land development business was appealing, they said.

In the end, though, no decision was made. The Assembly scheduled another meeting with the Benchlands committee. Holst quoted something he heard from Assembly member Bill Paden.

“‘The development on the Benchlands was imminent in 1962,’” he quoted Paden as saying.

Holst urged the Assembly to do something before the Oct. 2 municipal election, fearing that a new Assembly will put the conversation back at square one.

“This is probably as capable or more capable a group of seven people we’ve had to deal with this issue in a long time,” he said. “I think we ought to just dig into it. If you don’t get it done by the election, so be it.”

The Assembly ended up scheduling another meeting to discuss the matter. It will take place Sept. 20 at 5 p.m.

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