Community leaders discuss lack of low-income housing rentals
Representatives from the Nome Emergency Shelter Team, Norton Sound Regional Hospital, the City of Nome and several Alaska Native corporations met with Nate Richmond, President of Blueline Development, on Monday July 18 to discuss solutions to the lack of low-income housing in Nome.
NEST Housing Coordinator Sue Steinacher organized the meeting with Richmond to identify ways to bring more affordable rentals to Nome.
Richmond, a low-income housing development consultant, came to Nome to listen to local leaders and decision makers speak about Nome’s housing needs. Once those needs are identified, Richmond is able to help find funding sources for constructing and renovating homes. “You’re not going to fix all of your housing needs with one project, but you need to know where to start,” said Richmond.
Steinacher said the need for housing in Nome is a “rising tide,” and backed the claim up with several statistics. According to the National Low-Income Housing Corporation, 44 percent of Nome households live in rentals. To afford a two-bedroom rental the occupant needs to make $28.42 an hour, far above minimum wage in Alaska, which is currently $9.75 per hour.
A 2014 study by the National Low Income Housing Coalition ranked Nome near the bottom of the list when comparing rents to income. The cost of rent in Nome is high because there is so much need. “Lesser places don’t rent for less because there is so much demand,” Steinacher said.
Though there is not a large on-the-street homeless population here, this does not mean there are adequate homes. “Just as bad as being homeless is being on the verge of being homeless,” Leon Boardway said. Boardway was concerned that people come to Nome to work seasonal jobs and take housing opportunities from local residents. And even if people are able to find affordable rentals, they are often not well cared for and amenities, such as heat, do not always work.
The housing crisis affects both ends of the economic spectrum. People who would take higher paying positions in Nome do not want to move here because they are worried about finding a place to live.
Several meeting attendees reported about the consequences of Nome’s housing problem. Often, people come to town from the villages thinking there will be job and housing opportunities, but have difficulty finding anything. As a result, entire families often end up moving in with relatives. Overcrowded houses with two to three families in a single-family home raises the potential for physical and sexual abuse along with health and social problems. If a person is charged with a barrier crime and stays with multiple family members after being released from prison, the entire household becomes ineligible to be a foster family as well as several housing opportunities.
Bering Straits Regional Housing Authority manages rentals in Nome. There are currently 18 families on a waiting list for 34 units at market rate and six on a waiting list for low-income and senior housing units. However, these numbers are about two to three times lower than they would be counting ineligible applicants. Applicants with various criminal charges, including joyriding and disorderly conduct, are ineligible for low-income housing for at least three years.
BSRHA constructs new houses in several villages. Their latest survey showed that the region needs 460 additional houses. The Alaska Housing Finance Corporation also has 33 rentals. They currently have 25 families on a waiting list for a two-bedroom house. “The numbers just scream need,” Steinacher said.
Kawerak President Melanie Bahnke wanted to make sure that all funds that could be utilized were and if not corporations should “go upstream” to try to secure money. Nome Eskimo Community and Bering Straits Housing Authority get Native American Housing Assistance and Self Determination, or NAHASDA funds, from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development each year. However, the money is a set amount allocated annually and is never enough to cover the high cost of construction in rural Alaska.
In his presentation Richmond, who has worked on about 45 low-income housing projects throughout his career, mentioned Alaska Housing Finance Corporation’s Low-Income Tax-Credit, or LITHC, program as a possible way to obtain funds for additional housing and renovation.
The LITHC covers development costs by allowing an investor to take a tax credit equal to the percentage of the cost they spent on the project. The Internal Revenue Service allocates tax credits as a dollar-for-dollar reduction in a taxpayer’s federal income tax. Tax credits are claimed over a 10-year period.
However, Nome lacks a long-term developer. “There’s no one here that wants to do your job,” Jim Stimpfle with New Frontier Reality said. There also need to be non-profit entities and Public Housing Authorities willing to invest in the projects.
Richmond referenced the hierarchy of needs as defined by the philosopher Abraham Maslow. Maslow uses a pyramid to rank human needs from the necessary, such as warmth, rest, security and safety, all the way up to self-actualization. The catch is, however, that if one does not have basic physiological needs met, they cannot move up the pyramid. “Everything builds on itself,” Richmond explained. For example, if someone does not have a house, or even a safe place to stay, they will find it hard to succeed in other aspects of life, such as finding and keeping a job. To help people get on to their feet, there needs to be affordable housing for them to live in. Affordable though a relative term, means that no more than 30 percent of a family’s total income is spent on utilities and rent.
Steinacher wants Nome to have housing that is available to everyone and does not discriminate based on tribal affiliation. There were three main possibilities for renovation into possible housing discussed at the meeting. The first was the old Norton Sound Regional Hospital, which is comprised of three buildings totaling 55,000 square feet. The current owners reported that the foundation is solid, the roof has been replaced and the asbestos has been removed. The structures have been appraised at $17,000. The original structure, built in 1948, will probably not be sold.
Richmond said the site had “potential.” Through the tax-credit program, the developer could receive 4 percent of the purchase price and subsidize 30 percent of the cost and a nine percent credit to subsidize 70 percent of the renovation.
Sitnasuak and Bering Straits Native Corporations are selling their apartments. Depending on who purchases them, Steinacher said it was possible that they could be turned into low-income housing.
Richard Spoor, with the company Colorado Housing Partners, purchased Lela Oman’s house near the Kawerak building. Spoor works with the Colorado Department of Corrections to help provide houses for those who would otherwise be homeless. “I rent to the people most people turn down,” he said. Spoor first visited Nome about five years ago and noted the housing crisis.
Spoor has renovated Oman’s house and has hopes of turning it into a transitional facility for men trying to sober up. The rent would be about $400 a month, an affordable cost even for someone working a low-wage job, Spoor said. However, this is not enough to cover the cost of the building and its renovations, and Spoor said he would need to have entities subsidize the rest of the rent payments.
There is also the possibility of building new homes. Nome Eskimo Community owns an empty city lot, and the City of Nome also has land that could possibly be used to construct homes.