Report details need for more housing in Juneau

By Charles L. Westmoreland | Southeast Living

Editor’s note: This is the first in a three-part series examining Juneau’s housing market. In this first piece Scott Ciambor, Affordable Housing Coordinator for the Juneau Economic Development Council, discusses JEDC’s housing needs assessment and what the data means. Part 2 will appear in our May issue. You can also read more online at www.seakliving.com.

Getting a finger on the pulse of Juneau’s housing market is a numbers game. For the last year and a half Scott Ciambor has been crunching those numbers in order to better understand the city’s housing needs.

On the surface some of the data Ciambor collected as the Juneau Economic Development Council’s housing coordinator has revealed some positive indicators for Alaska’s capital city. For example, the average price of single family homes has increased each of the last two years after taking a sharp drop in 2008, where the average price slipped to $295,000 from nearly $323,000 the previous year. Through the first six months of 2010, the average single family home sold for more than $313,000 after being on the market for 79 days, selling almost two weeks quicker than in previous years.

These numbers look promising for sellers, but Ciambor warns that the underlying problem is the low number of homes on the market, especially those considered affordable housing. At one point in mid-February, 49 homes were listed for sale in Juneau with another 49 homes pending sale. In past years the available number of homes was double that amount. More homes are available during summer months, however, because many families plan their relocation around the school year.

Such a low number of available homes is bad for Juneau’s housing market, Ciambor warns, because families unable to find housing will eventually leave the region, or in some cases leave Alaska altogether. And the fewer the number of houses on the market, the higher prices will continue to grow. This is paired with a dismally low number of available rentals in Juneau, hovering around 0 percent in 2010, according to JEDC data (that number isn’t a typo).

“The problem stems from not having enough options,” he said.

Having options helps keep families from being rent or mortgage burdened, Ciambor said, because families can start with something small and eventually grow into larger homes later on. The words “starter home” aren’t often used in Juneau, however.

JEDC data projects that about one-third of all Juneau renters are rent burdened (paying more than 30% of income toward rent), and about 12 percent are spending 50% of their annual income on rent. These families will have more difficulty becoming homeowners and are the most likely to leave Juneau and pursue opportunities elsewhere, Ciambor said.

In contrast, JEDC reported that about 1,000 households in Juneau currently renting can afford to buy a home but lack sufficient options. If more single family homes were available, more rental units would be freed up as a result for those who need it. One problem area identified by JEDC is the number of renters who should be homeowners.

Ciambor said one of his concerns about Juneau’s housing needs is that more and more families will be priced out of market during a time when growth is possible – and essential.

“The flow of state jobs from Juneau that we saw in previous years has slowed down,” he said, and in some cases positions have moved back to Juneau. Another economic boon is workers moving to town to work at the Greens Creek and Kensington mines, he said.

The solution, Ciambor said, is for Juneau to continue to build. JEDC’s study of Juneau’s housing market led to the recommendation that 343 new units made up of high-density housing and traditional single family homes be built. But building poses a problem in and of itself. About 40 new building permits have been issued each of the last three years. In previous years the number of permits was nearly twice that.

“We don’t have a lot of land” to build on, Ciambor said. “Everything we have needs to be collaborated on.”

The collaborative approach is what led to the creation of Juneau’s Affordable Housing Commission in 2007. The commission was formed by the Juneau Assembly and consists of city officials and industry professionals.

“The coalition is trying to form partnerships among competitors who are vying for the same grants or building contracts,” Ciambor said. “We are starting to see synergy among the group.”

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