Four of the five Assembly candidates visited Raven Radio on Monday night to take listener questions live on the air. Below, you can hear from candidates Aaron Swanson, Phyllis Hackett, Matt Hunter and Michelle Putz. Candidate Dallas Peavey was ill and unable to participate.
Tuesday night we’ll have the mayoral candidates on at 6:35 p.m., and Wednesday, we’ll do the same for the school board candidates.
Part 1: Priorities, economic development, a citizens’ vote for land sales, roads and economic diversity.
Part 2: Executive sessions, listening to boards and commissions, the Sheldon Jackson campus, affordable housing, attracting cruise visitors, and the visitor industry plan.
Part 3: Trimming city staff, the Blue Lake dam, sustainable timber, support for nonprofits, education funding, and a final pitch.
We took one of these issues, affordable housing, and put the candidates’ answers side-by-side. You can listen to, and read, that story below.
Monday night’s forum included candidates Phyllis Hackett, Matt Hunter, Michelle Putz and Aaron Swanson. Assembly candidate Dallas Peavey planned to be there, but fell ill Monday and couldn’t make it.
The four who were in the room took a variety of questions, some from listeners who called in. One caller wondered about affordable housing.
For candidate Matt Hunter, the issue is front and center.
“There’s a couple different options that have come to the Assembly table recently,” Hunter said. “One is opening the Benchlands. I think that has the greatest potential to do the greatest amount to change that situation. I’d like to see smaller lots … small enough that the homes have to be in the $200,000 price range – something people can get a loan for.”
Hunter is 30, and he said he’s seen friends struggle with finding an affordable place to live.
“But it’s not just young people who are looking for houses. It’s also the newly retired who are finding it very difficult to find adequate housing in this town,” he said.
Hunter suggested looking at existing city code, to see if there were ways to open up more rental properties.
“I came to Sitka in 1972, and affordable housing was the question, then, too,” said Phyllis Hackett, the only incumbent in the race. “I remember living on a small 17-foot boat trying to find a place to live. This is not a new issue.”
But it is an important one, Hackett says. She agrees with Hunter that maybe there’s some relief to be found by changing Sitka’s zoning laws.
“There are ways that we can encourage mother-in-law apartments above garages and things that may not be currently allowed, with examining our zoning,” she said. “It has to come to the forefront. There have been so many forums on affordable housing over the years. I don’t think the need has been diminished at all. Everybody is aware of the need. It’s just a matter of finding solutions.”
One of the proposed solutions is using city property known as “The Old City Shops” and another parcel at the Benchlands, to develop affordable housing.
“I really would like to see affordable housing in Sitka, as somebody who lives paycheck to paycheck,” candidate Aaron Swanson said.
The Benchlands, he said, are an important element in solving Sitka’s affordable housing shortage. But he also had his reservations.
“I’m a little concerned because I was looking at the Assembly minutes and one of the suggestions was sell the Benchlands outright to one person,” Swanson said. “That kind of scares me, that one person – they’re not going to buy the land to lose money. They’re going to buy the land to make a profit.”
Swanson suggested a property tax credit for people who own multiple lots, to encourage them to sell some of their extra lots at lower rates.
Michelle Putz nodded her head as the others answered.
“Re-zoning is one of the first things we need to do,” she said. “We need to have smaller lots, we need to have more multiple family housing opportunities, so you can develop something at a lower cost that’s going to be cheaper to buy or to rent.”
And she says Sitkans should consider tapping existing resources, such as the Baranof Island Housing Authority, or BIHA.
“They are doing some really great work, and they pointed out to me that they’re not just for the Native community,” Putz said. “They’re for all of us. So, figuring out a way to work with them to get more housing built at lower costs.”