PUBLISHED: 4:08 PM on Wednesday, August 1, 2007
Opening the door
Organizations offer ways to make home buying more affordable
There are many advantages to living in Southeast Alaska. The scenery is beautiful, the cities are safe, and Alaska's smaller communities offer a wealth of activities for young people just starting out as well as for well-established families.

One of the biggest drawbacks, however, is the fact that many people, including those in two-income families, simply can't find an affordable place to live.

"Right now this is a tremendous problem, especially in Juneau," said Affordable Housing Advocate Daniel Ungier of the United Way of Southeast Alaska.

"The majority of homes in Juneau are available to only a small portion of the population; approximately two-thirds of Juneau residents can't afford a single family home.

"An average home costs about $350,000, which requires an income of more than $95,000 per year," he said.

"That's well above the average median family income."

To combat this problem, a number of nonprofits have established programs to help homebuyers, including low-income individuals, find a way to afford a home.

The City and Borough of Juneau is also looking for ways to solve the problem, including passing laws to establish more affordable, higher-density housing developments, and allowing families to build more than one home on already-occupied lots.

"In the past six months, the Assembly has created a new zoning district that allows developers to build 10 single-family homes per acre, which is a step in the right direction toward higher-density housing developments," said Ungier.

"The Assembly also passed a bungalow housing ordinance, which allows families with large lots to build smaller houses on their lots. This will make new homes more affordable because the cost of the land is reduced.

"The city is taking the right steps but they are just getting started," he added. "We've still got a long way to go to make housing available to young professionals and to low-income individuals."

While there are many programs available to first-time homebuyers, figuring out what's out there isn't easy. A number of different organizations, including the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation (AHFC), Tlingit & Haida Regional Housing Authority (THRHA), Juneau Housing Trust, and Housing First offer programs to help those looking for a home, but there is no centralized place to learn about all that's offered.

"One of the biggest problems is that most of the time, people just don't know where to go for help," said LaVonne Garvey, grant administrator, Tlingit & Haida Regional Housing Authority.

"People don't come to us, for example, because they believe that we only provide Native housing. The fact is, we provide public housing as well."

THRHA partners with 12 communities to offer a variety of housing opportunities for all residents of Southeast. Opportunities include Rent-to-Own, family rentals, transitional and temporary emergency housing, senior independent living, home loans, down-payment assistance, home repair help and project and home construction.

"We have an extremely diverse group of programs that range from providing low-income housing tax credits, which give very low-income families an opportunity to lease an affordable home, to down-payment assistance that helps to bring the cost of the home down so that homeowners can afford their monthly payments," said Garvey. "We also have an extremely large home rehabilitation program."

Alaska Housing Finance Corporation (AHFC) works through lenders to provide programs that help make home ownership more affordable as well. "When people go to a bank, or credit union or mortgage company, those lenders know the types of programs that we have available," said Sherrie Simmonds, AHFC corporate communications officer.

"We work as a secondary lender behind the scenes to make home ownership possible."

Some of the programs that AHFC offers include single-family loan programs for first-time homebuyers, veterans, owner/occupiers of rural properties, and those living in manufactured homes.

Add-on loan options can provide down-payment assistance, energy-efficiency interest rate reductions, and interest rate reductions to certain targeted groups such as veterans, teachers and nurses. "In the last fiscal year, we provided 22 first-time homebuyer loans in Juneau, six in Ketchikan, three in Sitka and two in Douglas," said Simmonds.

AHFC also provides rental housing assistance though Housing Choice Vouchers for low-income Alaskans, affordable public housing, and senior and disabled housing. While there are waitlists for subsidized rental housing in some communities, people in other locations, such as Petersburg, can usually find a place to live pretty quickly.

Right now, the waitlist for subsidized rental housing in Juneau totals 533 people; in Ketchikan, 303; Sitka, 114; Wrangell, 23 and Petersburg, two.

Through AHFC's Home Buyer Education class, prospective homeowners can also find out all they need to know about buying and owning a home. The free eight-hour seminar is open to all buyers and contains information on shopping for a lender and real estate agent, title insurance, how to get a home loan, purchase and sale contracts, inspections and more.

Two newer nonprofit groups in Juneau are also helping to ease the search for affordable housing. Housing First owns two apartment buildings in Juneau and Douglas that they rent to low-income tenants. The Strasbaugh Building on Gastineau Avenue has seven units, and the Hillview Apartments in Douglas has 15 units. Tenants who live in these buildings must earn 60 percent or less of median income, or have a Section 8 voucher. "We usually have a pretty good vacancy rate, with apartments coming available every couple months," said Erin Walker-Tolles, Housing First administrator.

Housing First also offers the Home Opportunity Program, or HOP, which provides funds for a portion of a homeowner's down-payment and closing costs. This zero-interest home loan program is available to people earning 80 percent or less of median income. In 2007, Housing First helped five people buy homes through the HOP program.

Juneau Housing Trust helps low-income homebuyers find places to live by taking the cost of land out of the equation. The nonprofit, which has built eight homes on Crow Hill in Douglas, sells the houses to qualified homebuyers but retains ownership of the land in a community land trust. Since the average price of a single-family lot in Juneau is $40,000, this saves the homeowner money, and also enables the Trust to ensure affordability for each successive homebuyer. Under its resale formula, the Trust also receives 75 percent of the home's appreciation when the home is sold to another qualified owner.

"This is a way to make property permanently affordable, as compared to something like a Habitat for Humanity home, which is one-time affordable," explained Stephen Sorensen, president, Juneau Housing Trust, Inc.

Of the eight homes originally built, two have since been re-sold.

While finding affordable housing is a challenge in Southeast, especially in Juneau, there are programs available to help new homebuyers find a place to call home. And, more are being built every day.