Alaska workers face a housing crisis in some communities. Employers hope that if they build it, employees will come.
Some employers in Alaska are building housing for workers, in an effort to address a severe labor shortage.
This includes Alyeska Resort in Girdwood, which is building a $6.6 million facility designed for middle management employees, who are finding it increasingly difficult to find affordable accommodation there. Elsewhere in Alaska, efforts are underway to convert former military barracks and a state ferry into housing for workers.
Employers hope the new housing will help find and retain workers while relieving pressure on extremely tight property markets that have reduced rental options in many cities.
Labor and housing shortages have become an especially pressing issue for many Alaskan communities, escalating during the pandemic.
“Things were bad before, but now we are coming to desperate times,” said Krystal Hoke, estate agent and resident of Girdwood.
Sold out at Girdwood
In Girdwood, Alyeska Resort recently inaugurated a new three-storey building. It will house 120 people in around 70 studios and one-bedroom apartments, according to plans.
[Alaska house prices jumped last year to a record $389,000]
Sacha Jurva, general manager of the Alyeska Resort, said the lack of accommodation has contributed to a shortage of workers at the resort, which recently opened an outdoor spa.
The new housing should increase employee longevity and help the resort attract employees, Jurva said. The opening is scheduled for next summer.
Residents say Girdwood’s housing and labor market have been impacted by the same forces that affect many Alaskan towns.
Landlords are increasingly renting to tourists through Airbnb and other websites, taking long-term rentals out of the market. Soaring demand for homeownership, driven by low interest rates during the pandemic, has compounded the problem. Meanwhile, workers are restricted across Alaska as tourism heats up, two years after unemployment hit record highs during the pandemic.
Hoke said rooms were rarely let out at Girdwood.
If they do, there’s a line of people needing it, it won’t be cheap – and the place might come without plumbing.
“Finding anything below $1,500 a month is very difficult,” Hoke said.
This excludes many city service workers from the market, she said. Teachers and other professionals have also had to leave Girdwood because of the situation, said Hoke, a member of the Girdwood Land Trust, a non-profit organization working on its own plan to build more housing for workers in the town.
Marco Zaccaro, a Girdwood architect whose firm is designing the Alyeska project, said he will free up rental space in Girdwood as some Alyeska workers move into the building.
Some of the city’s workforce lives in cars and tents pitched in the woods because they can’t afford a place, Zaccaro said.
[Girdwood desperately needs housing. A veteran developer aims to help, but residents have many questions.]
The new accommodation will be built near the Alyeska Hotel, next to the station’s smaller workforce accommodation center set up about 15 years ago, he said.
This was designed to house lower-level workers like elevator attendants, he said.
The new facility will provide space for mid-level workers, like sous chefs who help run kitchens and who also struggle to find a place.
“Now everyone is affected, so it’s more for middle managers,” he said. “They don’t want to live in a shack without running water.”
A barracks project in Homer
In Homer, which has a population of 6,000, lack of housing contributes to a labor shortage that limits business growth, said Brad Anderson, director of the Homer Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center.
Anchor 907, a government contracting company in Homer owned by two Navy retirees, offered to create housing by importing surplus military barracks from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage.
“It’s really needed,” Anderson said. “We are approaching 300 unfilled jobs and we have no accommodation available.
Michael Daniel, co-owner of Anchor 907, said the growth in vacation rentals has seriously hurt the long-term rental market.
Some workers in cities stay in sheds and trailers, he said. An unplumbed cabin was recently available for $1,100 a month, and only for six weeks.
“A yurt costs $2,100 a month without running water between June and September on Airbnb,” he said. “It shows you how impossible it is for the workers here.”
The barracks look like small houses and are available at a great price, he said. About 15 years old, they have shared bathrooms, kitchens and washing machines.
They will be able to accommodate 120 people, he said.
Anchor 907 plans to buy them in the coming weeks and ship them down the highway to Homer, he said.
The company is also working to acquire vacant land, possibly in the Kenai Peninsula borough, where they can be erected.
[Tight labor market pushes Alaska unemployment to a record low]
Daniel plans to rent them to employers, hopefully for $750 a month or less, who can provide them to workers, he said.
“The government spent the money on construction and engineering costs, so we’re trying to leverage that to do a good thing for the community,” he said.
Lance Prouse, owner of Captain’s Coffee Roasting Co. in Homer, said he will rent at least two rooms at Anchor 907 as soon as they are ready.
He wanted to expand his cafe to sell dinners, but he can’t find enough workers because they have nowhere to live, he said. He said he lost job applicants in the spring when their landlord turned their place into an Airbnb rental.
A village in the Southeast imports a men’s camp for seasonal workers
Nils Andreassen, leader of the Municipal League of Alaska representing local governments, said labor and housing shortages are top priorities for dozens of Alaskan communities.
“Everyone I talk to seems to be on their list,” he said, with the shortage of childcare providers also a big issue.
New housing for workers can help solve the dilemma, he said.
Other companies that have recently built housing for workers include Major Marine Tours in Seward. Major Marine owner Tom Tougas said he builds new housing for workers almost every year. About 80 of its employees receive housing at reduced rates. He says companies with the best employee housing have the best employees.
[Tourists and cruise ships are ready to return to Seward. But is Seward ready for them?]
In Hoonah, a village in southeast Alaska, the Huna Totem Alaska Native Village Society imported a men’s camp that had been used at the base of Clear Space Force Station about 80 miles outside of Fairbanks.
The camp, with 48 beds and 24 rooms, was torn down this spring to provide housing for company workers at the Icy Strait Point cruise ship destination, said Fred Parady, chief operating officer at Huna Totem.
“We are having a good season and our manpower needs were increasing,” Parady said.
A former state ferry in Ketchikan will provide housing for employees
In Ketchikan, Southeast Alaska, where housing prices soared last year, several hundred jobs are unfilled in the town of about 8,000 people, said Richard Harney, director planning and community development of the Ketchikan Gateway Borough.
But there are few housing options for new workers.
Even the borough is struggling to find employees, he says. Some prospects have recently turned down job offers after being unable to find affordable housing, he said.
“It’s quite difficult,” he said.
The city is trying to change its code to spur the construction of more affordable housing, including more secondary suites — mother-in-law’s apartments on residential properties — like Anchorage did, he said.
In a private effort in Ketchikan, a business group bought the state’s historic Malaspina ferry this spring for about $130,000. Plans include creating a floating museum, while providing accommodation for workers, including other employers.
John Binkley, president of the company and a participant in the partnership that opened a new cruise destination in Ketchikan last year, said the Malaspina will try to keep room costs low.
The Binkley family is also invested in the Ward Cove project, a new cruise destination in Ketchikan. Ward Cove employees can also be accommodated on the ferry, Binkley said.
(Binkley’s sons and daughter own Anchorage Daily News. John Binkley himself plays no role in DNA operations. The Binkleys are not involved in news coverage.)
The ferry has 280 beds, between state rooms and crew quarters, he said.
The plan may alleviate some of the demand in the local rental market, which has shrunk as people turned properties into summer rentals, he said.
“Hopefully what we’re doing is a small part of the solution (for Ketchikan),” he said.
This article has been updated to clarify the Binkley family’s investment in the Ward Cove project and that some of their employees may be housed in the Malaspina.
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