A nationwide housing shortage is happening across Alaska, but perhaps nowhere in the state is it as bad as Girdwood, the mountain resort 40 miles south of Anchorage.
“I’ve been asked a few times how you describe one word,” said Resident Mike Edgington, who works on land issues on the Girdwood Board of Supervisors. “And I think it’s a ‘crisis’.”
Tax reports show that the average Girdwood home value grew five times as fast as the rest of Anchorage over the past year, and the market rate is likely much higher.
Anecdotally, residents report that property prices have almost doubled in the past five years.
It is being driven by high labor costs, an increase in building material costs, and a scarcity of land. Add to this the pandemic-induced shift to teleworking, which has made Girdwood an attractive place for teleworkers with its snow-capped peaks and extensive network of hiking trails.
âWe are now seeing people buying who could work anywhere in the world. I’ve sold houses to people who work internationally and come here in the winter, “said Sam Daniel, owner of Glacier City Realty Skiing.”
In other words, Girdwood is becoming a “Zoom Town”.
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âIt’s the hottest market in Alaska. Period, âsaid Daniel, who lived in Girdwood for 30 years before moving to Anchorage.
It has a real impact on the community. Just ask piano teacher Autumn Laemmrich, who was recently pushed out of the Girdwood housing market after living there for 8 years. She was hoping to raise a family there, but found prices had gotten too high when she started seeing two-bedroom houses in need of repair for more than $ 500,000.
âWhen we really hit the breaking point of ‘Okay this is it. We’re going to have to leave Girdwood. ‘ I probably cried every day because it was my dream to live here, âshe said.
Eventually she bought a house in Bayshore, Anchorage.
Girdwood-based Ashley Kearns lived in a bus equipped with a wood-burning stove for the past two years until it burned down last year. Kearns estimates there are about 30 more living in buses and RVs in town, plus another half a dozen in vans.
She recently managed to find a rental but she competes not only with locals but also with residents of Anchorage who are willing to pay for a rental to use for skiing at the resort on winter weekends. Your new rental is not great.
âIt falls into the earth. It has quite a large slenderness. There are a lot of spiders. It’s collapsing, âshe said.
Only 30% of the homes in Girdwood are owned by people who live there, according to a property filing analysis by Edgington. That is one of the lower than that of Aspen, Colorado.
Edgington, a former speech recognition engineer, said it had an impact on who can live in Girdwood. He said the city needed fewer people like him.
âOver time, it has a hollow effect on our community. That means younger families can’t afford to stay here and they go and it kills the community aspect of the community, âhe said.
It also exacerbates labor shortages. Many restaurants have reduced opening times or close completely, in part because workers cannot afford life in the city and do not want to commute.
“I’ve had several people who applied for jobs and didn’t even want to go through the interview because they were looking for an apartment,” said Kim Vansickle, a manager at a local helicopter company.
That also means the fire brigade has just 15 volunteers who live in the city of nearly 50. The rest have to commute from Anchorage in the event of a major emergency.
“There is not a single silver ball”
Church leaders are trying to fix the problem, but there are no quick or easy solutions.
Most achievable is a change in land use regulations to allow additional housing units, commonly known as mother-in-law apartments. They are currently restricted in Girdwood, which is under the government of the Anchorage Township, but which had its zone codes written 10 years before it was incorporated.
“We’re taking the changes that have been made in Anchorage and adding some others that we’ve seen in other resort communities,” said Edgington, who is pushing for the changes.
He said he’s also working on regulating overnight stays – AirBnBs or VRBO rentals. Apart from a bed tax, these units do not pay any tax to the communities in which they operate.
“Just from a neighborhood and nuisance point of view, we’d like to come up with a regulation to basically encourage short-term rentals to be better neighbors,” Edgington said.
There is also a lack of land on which new houses can be built. Krystal Hoke works for the Girdwood Community Land Trust, which advocates accessible housing for Girdwood residents and urges the Anchorage Heritage Land Bank to develop their own land for housing.
The city recently cleared 55 hectares for development and two companies have submitted proposals for development. But Hoke said she feared builders’ desire to build homes at market prices ran counter to what the community wanted.
“We’re not even sitting at the table,” said Hoke.
The art of the problem is structural and goes back decades. Girdwood voted for incorporation into the city of Anchorage in the 1970s, but the majority of the landowners who voted for incorporation were residents of Anchorage.
Hoke said that the Girdwood Community Land Trust’s ideas on how to open up new land must be governed by rules developed for Anchorage. Title 21, which regulates Anchorage’s land use, calls for things like paved roads, sidewalks, and lighting for new developments. That means additional costs for developers that Hoke fears will drive prices up.
âEssentially, the people who live here in Girdwood are priced. And then we don’t have a sustainable economy because we all import our labor. And I don’t think Girdwood is that kind of community, âshe said.