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During the Sitka Planning Commission’s meeting on Wednesday (10-05-16), participants were invited to mark the places where Sitka could develop housing. (Emily Kwong/KCAW photo)

Housing was the big theme for Wednesday night’s (10-06-16) meeting of the Sitka Planning Commision. The group is currently re-writing Sitka’s Comprehensive Plan, which dictates land use policies, zoning, and building codes for Sitka. 

See Sheinberg’s data here.

See Sheinberg’s powerpoint presentation here: Oct 5 PP Housing

Barbara Sheinberg, a Juneau-based consultant, began the presentation with a data-driven picture of Sitka’s housing market for both owners and renters. In 2014, the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development projected that 25 people would migrate out of Sitka every year through 2020. The trend is consistent with data from the Southeast Economic Development Fund, which estimated that 570 people had left Sitka between 2010 and 2014.

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In 2014, the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development projected that 25 people would migrate out of Sitka between 2015 and 2020. Combined with more deaths than births due to an aging population, Sitka’s population is declining. (Graph from Barbara Sheinberg, Sheinberg Associates)

Sheinberg called those figures a “rallying cry.” She considers the next five years a critical window for developing a housing plan that convinces people to move to Sitka — and stay.

“What this is all about is stopping this trend and finding ways to keep young people – people that are having children – in town and keep some of the 20-25% non-resident workforce that’s here. And it’s not just fishermen and cannery worker. We need to turn this pattern around. And I do think it’s possible,” Sheinberg said.

While some of her data points were disputed by audience members, her general conclusions were met with approval. That included four challenges for Sitka’s housing market.

The first is a a lack of “starter” or smaller housing for millennials – those young Sitkans age 15-34. The percentage of people who own homes has decreased, while the percentage of people who live in rental housing has increased. And according to Sheinberg’s data, half of Sitka’s renter population is cost-burdened. That means over 30% of their income goes toward their monthly housing payments.

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Using estimates from the American Community Survey, Sheinberg determined that half of Sitka’s renter population is cost-burdened. That means over 30% of their income is devoted to housing payments, a threshold which indicates an affordability problem. (Graph from Barbara Sheinberg, Sheinberg Associates)

Kitty Sopow  came to Sitka through the AmeriCorps program and after it ended, struggled to find a job that could support her.

Sopow: I moved up here with AmeriCorps and I met my husband and I loved my AmeriCorps experience. But then the next year AmeriCorps came. And the next year, 12 more [AmeriCorps volunteers] came. And I’m competing for three jobs with all of them.

KCAW: So you’ll stay at this rental for awhile?

Sopow: I have no plan on leaving my rental because I can’t afford to move out. I got a sweet deal.

Sopow was able to stay at her rental unit because her landlord agreed to lower the price.

The other challenges Sheinberg identified included a growing senior population with housing needs, a short supply of undeveloped buildable land, and high cost of development, from adding fill to extending utilities. Data from the city’s Building Department shows that construction of homes in Sitka has declined significantly in the past decade, with 

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The CBS Building Department tracks housing development. And their numbers show that construction has decreased significantly in Sitka over the last decade. Most new construction is for single family dwelling units. (Table from Barbara Sheinberg, Sheinberg Associates)

Aiming a laser pointer at a series of slides, Sheinberg showed what other communities are doing to address their affordable housing challenges.

In 2012, Juneau changed it’s building codes to allow for accessory dwelling units (commonly called “mother-in-law” apartments) in commercial areas and last year, launched a grant program to incentivize building. Through a program called House Build, students at Juneau-Douglas High School and University of Alaska Southeast have been pounding nails and raising frames for the Juneau Land Trust.

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Over the past four years, the Juneau Land Trust has built over a dozen homes in partnership with high school and college students. This is an 800 square foot unit that recently sold for $235,000. (Photo courtesy of Barbara Sheinberg)

Sheinberg praised the work of the Sitka Community Land Trust to create a cottage neighborhood and the Baranof Island Housing Authority, which has been developing models of multi-family housing on Indian River Road.

The Rasmuson funding will cover site preparation for the first six cottages on the right. Construction funding will be secured by the SCLT through a variety of traditional channels. The homes should be under construction by spring. (SCLT image)

The Sitka Community Land Trust is building a cottage neighborhood of 13 units that face a common green space. The deed of the house will be kept separate from the deed of the land, in order to maintain their affordability over time. (SCLT image)

The conversation then pivoted outwards, seeking audience input on how Sitka could create more and more affordable homes. Many wanted to see the city reduce the minimum lot size of 8000 square feet.

CableHouseRainbow_NEWS_TAG3_smClyde Bright just bought a small mobile home park and wants to sell the lots for home development. “If somebody wants to live in a 200 square foot house in a 1000 square foot lot, they should be able to do that. A tiny house does not need to be on a trailer. It can be a foundation. Give these millennials a chance. Not everyone wants a 3500 square foot house,” Bright said.

The audience, which was about two dozen in size, echoed a desire to think outside the box when it came to home design, such as expanding the Sitka Community Land Trust, recruiting Habitat for Humanity or other sweat equity programs, and legalizing tiny homes on existing lots.

All wanted to see the city acquire more land from the state and federal government. Participants were invited to mark those spots on aerials maps, as well as “infill” opportunities. Those are places in the downtown area where smaller lots – typically in-between bigger lots – could be developed.

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The Sitka Planning Commision conducted a land use inventory and determined the city has 12,000 – 13,000 of undeveloped land. Not all of it is fit for home construction, however. (Emily Kwong/KCAW photo)

Michael Laguire said he was excited to see solutions being put on the table. I’ve heard people talk about affordable housing for 30 years. Now we’ve got groups that are actually going to do something about it. And it’s by talking about changing the codes and changing a mindset,” he said.

The next meeting devoted the Sitka Comprehensive Plan is Wednesday, November 9t at 7 p.m. at Harrigan Centennial Hall. Sheinberg will merge community input from previous meetings on land use, economics, and housing.