One of the reasons Katie Riley joined the planning commission was to address affordable housing issues in her hometown. “I’m a young person living in Sitka, and one of the main things that young people living in Sitka talk about is not being able to afford to live here,” she said. “So I wanted to be, you know, part of the solution and see how I can work on addressing that.”

Katie Riley, 28, grew up in Sitka. After leaving for college and working abroad, she returned to her hometown and decided to get involved. She’s the youngest member of the Sitka Planning Commission and has a passion for addressing Sitka’s affordable housing crisis. KCAW’s Erin McKinstry spoke with Riley about the problem and possible solutions as part of a special “Building Solutions” series.

KCAW: How long have you been on the Planning Commission? 

KR: Since October 2020.

KCAW: And what made you want to be on the commission? 

KR So what made me want to be on the commission was, I was really interested in the comprehensive plan, and sort of the long term vision for how our community develops and looks, and you know, what kind of opportunities are provided to residents. For you know, for the long term sustainability of the town, and then also, I was very interested in addressing the affordable housing issue, because, you know, I’m a young person living in Sitka, and one of the main things that young people living in Sitka talk about is not being able to afford to live here. So I wanted to be, you know, part of the solution and see how I can work on addressing that.

KCAW  And do you have personal experience with that as well? Or is it more just like friends?

KR It’s a lot of friends. Um, I am extremely fortunate because my, my father is actually a landlord, he, he owns multiple real estate properties around Sitka. So I rent from him and have a first-hand understanding of some of the broader dynamics, I think that you know, it’s really easy to look at it from a bunch of different ways. But I like to like to think that I have a bit more of a holistic perspective, you know, hearing from so many of my peers about what the challenges are hearing from landlords about what the challenges are, knowing sort of the economics of upkeep and trying to provide housing in this market. I mean, anytime you’re looking at, like, issues that face broad swaths of the community, you have to talk to both the people that it is impacting directly, and also the people who are, you know, being blamed for it. Or are being asked to come up with solutions and sort of what is their perspective about why that is, or is not feasible because the contractors in town, you know, the builders, like, they know the economics. We can complain about the cost of housing, but if we’re not understanding, you know, what is the cost for the people actually developing the property and how those are fixed. It’s kind of like fixed here, just the base price is very, very high for bringing in building materials and all of that, you know, we’re not, we’re not going to reach any productive conversation, and it’s more going to be like an argument and a sort of blame game. And so I like to listen to all the all the sides available.

KCAW  So we sort of established that affordable housing is an issue in the community. And you already pointed to one of the reasons which is like, the cost of building materials is pretty high. The cost of building in general is really high. Are there other things that you see as big factors in this really complicated issue in Sitka. Why it is that it is so expensive to find a house or rent an apartment here?

KR  Yeah, you know, we, we have very little developable land is a huge reason hindering more affordable housing is that very little flat, stable land. And not a lot of municipally owned land, like we live in a liminal space, right between the Tongass National Forest and the ocean and build on this very kind of small square real estate that is Sitka. So you’re really confined by both the natural features and land ownership, but I’d say mainly the natural features, right. And then the, the cost of developing land, even that is available to put in utilities. And just basic infrastructure is massively expensive. So not just the building materials for the house itself, but just like to prep the land and also, like, you know, we live around a massive amount of wetlands and it’s very hard to build on wetlands. So that’s another complicating factor I think. So, you know, there’s a real need to get creative in how we address this crisis and everybody having a single family home is not necessarily what’s going to work in Sitka, Alaska for the future, you know, if we if we do want to grow as a community,

KCAW  You use the word crisis, do you see it as a crisis?

KR  Um, yeah, I’m, I see it as a crisis because, you know, there are a lot of my peers that are like, literally looking at moving out of town, because they cannot find a place to live, that either doesn’t accommodate them for the whole year, you know, it’s like a, they have winter housing, but then summer comes around, they get kicked out. There’s not, you know, places being offered for them and their animals. Finding housing for pets is a huge issue. So, you know, when you have young people moving away from a community, not because they can’t find a job, or because they don’t have good friends or social support systems, but just because they can’t find a place to live like, that to me is yeah, that’s a crisis, you know, that’s our economic base moving away, that’s the future of this town, like, we need young people here to invest in Sitka and make it their home, you know, for the future resilience of our town. And the more unaffordable it becomes, and the less sort of entry there is into the housing market, I think the more that crisis worsens. In addition, the factors that we can see on the horizon, the hospital expansion, the potential arrival of a new Coast Guard vessel, you know, the expansion of our tourism industry and the seasonal workforce that will be needed to accompany that, these are all factors that I think will take, you know, the situation, you might say that we have now and definitely turn it into a crisis like very quickly.

KCAW  So, we kind of established the problem and some of the causes of the problem. What do you see as some of the solutions to the problem?

KR  That’s the million dollar question, right? Um, I think that there is no silver bullet. There is no one way to address affordable housing in Sitka, you have to use as many different ideas and draw in as many different people as possible to come up with those ideas. So I am really heartened by some of the ideas that I’m hearing um, one of them is increased focus on planned unit developments. They’re called PUDs. The Sitka Community Land Trust is a type of planned unit development. What Brendan Jones and stowaway enterprises want to do with the old Presbyterian Church is the type of plan unit development where you’re kind of developing a lot of housing units, in conjunction with potential other uses of the land, you know, little community spots, increasing walkability, creating these new types of neighborhoods, while at the same time, like creating denser living spaces, right. So I think that denser accommodation is one of the solutions. And smaller, allowing smaller lot sizes, is one and, you know, the city is pursuing these solutions, which is really cool. I think that they reduced the minimum lot size from 8000 square feet to 6000 square feet, just like in 2019. And it could be further reduced. And ADUs, accessory dwelling units, are another really cool opportunity to create more housing. And I would like to see those more widely permitted, as allowable uses in areas where they make sense. And how can the city work with the Tribe and with the Baranof Island Housing Authority to create more opportunities for affordable housing, especially for low income residents. Because that is another you know, big segment of our population I think that is being impacted by the housing affordability issue and also being you know, faced with these choices about like leaving the community and that’s, you know, this town is meant for all the all the folks that live here and people should not be forced out because they can’t afford to, you know, find a place to live.

Throughout April and May KCAW News will be bringing you stories about affordable housing solutions every Friday as part of our “Building Solutions” series. Erin McKinstry is a Report for America corps member.