The housing crisis is harming my town

By Tim Lydon

In Girdwood, Alaska, we’ll long remember the snowstorm of Dec. 6, just three months ago. But it won’t be for the school cancellations. We’ll remember it as the night dozens of residents traveled a snow-packed highway to testify at a public meeting — about housing.

Residents across the West will recognize why so many came out that snowy night. A proposed development, called Holtan Hills, would expand our town’s footprint but include almost nothing affordable for teachers, firefighters, wait staff or others who comprise the soul of our community and drive its economy.

With no guardrails to support local homeownership, second-home real estate investors would likely gobble up the project’s predominantly high-end units. It’s happening already, with most shunning the long-term rental needs of a few thousand people in this south-central Alaskan community. New owners often offer nightly rentals or just leave their houses unoccupied.

That would mean more empty houses in a town with a severe housing shortage. The dozens who testified that night, and the hundreds who wrote letters, described the impacts.

They included Emma, who runs a fishing boat with her husband, and whose young-adult daughter can’t find a place to rent in the town where she grew up and now works. And Amanda, the pizza shop owner, who is overwhelmed trying to help her employees find housing, including the 65-year-old man whose landlord recently booted him out on short notice.

Erin described bailing on her long-held dream of raising a family here after 11 years of pouring her talents into nonprofit youth education programs. She reminded me of Autumn, my daughter’s former piano teacher, who recently moved away after years of teaching music to local kids. She had been unable to find steady housing.

Such stories swirled into that winter night from the heroes every mountain community knows — the ones who clean rentals, provide health care, build houses and teach our kids to speak, spell, ski and say “thank you.” Business owners were there, too, detailing how the lack of attainable housing causes employee shortages that curtail operating hours, leaving fewer visitor services.

Some who didn’t speak that night included the local workers who sleep in their cars or in drafty cabins on the edge of town. We also didn’t hear from the Filipino parents of my daughter’s close playmate, who are trying hard to remain in the town where their accounting jobs are located, and where their daughter is thriving.

Dozens of us highlighted how communities across the West have fought similar battles for an entire generation now. We talked about Whitefish, Tahoe, Breckenridge, Boise and other towns. We explained their use of sensible deed restrictions, limits on nightly rentals, incentives that promote local home ownership, and concessions from developers. All helped local workers attain housing.

I know the benefits. Living in Colorado in the 1990s, I accepted a financial incentive to put a deed restriction on my modest condo. After my wife and I sold the condo, the payment became seed money for our first house. Meanwhile, the condo still holds a deed restriction that helps locals enter the market. Under such reasonable measures, developers could still make buckets of money while workers gained access to housing.

Someone else who didn’t show that night was the developer, who instead dropped a guest column in the state’s largest newspaper maligning her project’s critics.

Some of our elected officials were equally indifferent. One blithely suggested that someone just needs to build a hardware store in town so that building costs could come down. Another asked why our town hadn’t solved the housing issue earlier. Others grilled residents on how many more houses it would take to solve the problem.

Of course, as with many Western communities, the issue is not an actual shortage of houses. It’s the blizzard of cash that second-home speculators and others can throw at any property that enters the market.

The meeting ran almost to midnight, as snow blanketed the cars outside. I imagined this must have been the scene two decades ago, as housing proponents in the West’s mountain towns spent nights eking out seemingly small wins. But those wins are now the proven programs that can help communities today.

We just need elected officials to understand that people can’t work here if they have nowhere to live.

Tim Lydon is a contributor to Writers on the Range,, an independent nonprofit dedicated to spurring conversation about the West. He writes in Alaska.

Girdwood Valley courtesy of Nathan Searles

This column was published in the following newspapers:

01/30/2023 Vail Daily Vail CO
01/30/2023 Steamboat Pilot Steamboat Springs CO
01/30/2023 Carlsbad Current-Argus Carsbad NM
01/30/2023 Lake Powell Chronicle Page AZ
01/30/2023 Yahoo sunnyvale ca
01/31/2023 Bozeman daily chronicle Bozeman MT
01/30/2023 Craig Daily Press Craig co
01/31/2023 Moscow-Pullmand Daily News Moscow-Pullman ID
01/31/2023 Park Record Park City UT
01/30/2023 Montrose Daily Press Montrose CO
01/31/2023 Explore Big Sky Big Sky MT
02/01/2023 Denver Post Denver CO
02/01/2023 Montrose Daily Press Montrose CO
02/01/2023 Jackson Hole News & Guide Jackson Hole WY
02/01/2023 Grand Junction Daily Sentinel Grand Junction CO
02/02/2023 Boulder Monitor Boulder MT
02/02/2023 Taos News Taos NM
02/01/2023 Salt Lake Tribune Salt Lake City UT
02/01/2023 Summit Daily frisco co
02/02/2023 Moab Times Independent Moab UT
02/02/2023 Glenwood Post Independent Glenwood Springs CO
02/04/2023 Greeley Tribune Greeley CO
02/03/2023 St. George Spectrum St. George UT
02/03/2023 Idaho Mountain Express Ketchum ID
02/05/2023 Wenatchee World Wenatchee WA
02/05/2023 Aspen Daily News Aspen CO
02/02/2023 Newport Miner Newport WA
02/01/2023 Alamosa Valley Courier Alamosa CO
02/06/2023 Bandon Western World Bandon OR
02/10/2023 Del Norte Triplicate Crescent City CA
02/10/2023 Coastal Curry Pilot Brookings OR
02/13/2023 Progressive Populist Manchaca TX
02/15/2023 The Daily Yonder Whitesburg Ky
02/08/2023 Methow Valley News Twisp WA
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Steve Fernlund
1 year ago

Same here in Cook County Minnesota. Prime vacation spot but little housing options for the working folks.

Towny Anderson
1 year ago

I have dealt with affordable housing in VT and CO, 20 years apart, and now, nearly 20 years later, Tim has written a fine column on the same issue, only in a community further west. Despite all the successful precedents from which to draw — learned over 60 plus years –the challenge continues to boil down to politics: “We just need elected officials to understand that people can’t work here if they have nowhere to live,” so succinctly stated by Tim. 
    When I was in the game, our City Council passed the first inclusionary zoning ordinance — not perfect by any means, but also not without fierce resistance from the development community. In fact, we were summarily voted out of office in the next election. I found myself arguing with our housing community — my allies — because I was a strong proponent of accepting a piece of land offsite from the developer in lieu of having the developer set aside 10% of the units in the development which would be in the ski resort base area. We had brought two experts on affordable housing from Vail to speak to the community and asked, if you had to do it again, what would you do differently? and the blunt answer was, take the land, buy the land, what ever it takes — the value of land is timeless. 
    Fast forward to the ensuing years after the Great Recession of 2008, and the developers, one by one, came back to City Council asking for relief from the affordable housing requirement, which of course, was granted (no councilor asked the obvious question, “are any of your market rate units selling?”). Last I heard, the community is now back at square one, fiercely debating the need for affordable housing. Had the community accepted the offer of land offsite, do you think they would have come to the City Council asking for the land back — or a percentage of the housing units that had subsequently been built on that land? Ha!

Sherrie Fay Lindskog
1 year ago

Apparently this is happening all over the country. We are dealing with these same problems here in Grand Marais/Cook County, Minnesota.

1 year ago

Brother, perhaps it is feasible to accept commuting 40min or so from Anchorage instead of living in the resort? Maybe someday someone will build apartment complexes and maybe a commuter train or other reliable form of public transit up there, unlikely unless the money is there and that is the crux. The issue with affordable housing is the same everywhere, always has been and always will be. If you worked in Boston/DC/NYC/etc. you’d feel about average with a 1hr commute. The ski/outdoor resort town seems like the promised land and oh-so-different from the real cities, but money still runs the show and I’ve yet to see taxes and penalties make a big difference. Also, do you think that some mountain townfolk have a somewhat, and i mean this respectfully, sense of entitlement when it comes to accessing prime time real estate? (Try this approach in Manhatten). What I’ve seen is people who expect houses and consider apartment buildings to be a form of punishment…no room for the river raft, skidoo trailer or #vanlife 4×4 Sprinter evidently. Instead of seeking help from government rules and laughable mountain town “planning” (e.g. Jackson, Sun Valley, Whitefish, etc.) where regardless of the best noble+shangri-la intentions, realize that most affordable housing concepts have never been a really good and sustainable idea and result in the overcrowding, traffic, and inevitable rising crime rate that flourishes when we pack people unnaturally close to one another. Put in some good tunes and enjoy the beautiful Turnagin (icy I know!) commute and maybe someday your community developers will have some incentive to build some apartment complexes, or a train….or if a prime time piece of real estate is your goal, maybe figure out a creative way to make a bunch of dough so you can buy whatever you want.

Tim Lydon
1 year ago
Reply to  rueben

Hello Rueben,

While I think it’s fair to talk about light rail and other options to assist workers who have been bumped from the community, I strongly disagree with a few of your assumptions. First, in our community and many others, we are talking about apartments and all levels of density. Many of us are homeowners. The assumption that residents who were unable to get in before the price hikes are after big houses or garage is way out of touch. That’s just not what’s happening in resort communities. Also, please note this discussion is also about creating opportunities for rentals, not just home ownership.Second, the towns mentioned in the article have had success in keeping local workers in the community in a variety of housing types. So the planning does have successes. It’s not ideal in all cases, but there are successes that should be acknowledged, which what this article attempts. Third, I would be very careful about asserting that crime rates rise when fair housing solutions are pursued. That’s just a very broad and unsavory take. Fourth, this particular development is being subsidized by the municipality, and many in our community believe the subsidy should go to more than high-end development. It is inaccurate to assert that housing advocates are somehow asking for ‘prime-time’ real estate. Lastly, I do appreciate your comparison between resort communities and larger urban areas. This is a topic myself and others think a lot about as we are involved in housing issues both in our community and in nearby Anchorage. It’s a lot to think about, but the only way to do begin that is to move past some of the quick assumptions described above. Thanks. Tim

Girdwood Homeowner
1 year ago
Reply to  Tim Lydon

Holtan Hills is not being “subsidized by the municipality”. The contract states that the developer will sell lots and split the profits with the muni. Furthermore the proposed ordinance (a) blocks STRs, (b) transfers a multifamily lot to a housing authority and (c) states that all development steps must be cleared with a community-based lands committee. Girdwood homeowners who are fighting to block this refuse to acknowledge that blocking this development means that no new homes will be built in the valley in the foreseeable future and home values will continue to rise at record rates. Anchorage isn’t going to build affordable housing for Girdwood locals – the city needs to focus on actually providing housing for the hundreds of people living on the street before we worry about people who want a nice home in a resort community.

Commentary: The Housing Crisis is Harming My Town | The Daily Yonder - Alaska Local News
1 year ago

[…] This story was originally published by Writers on the Range. […]

T. Lee Brown
1 year ago

Sounds pretty much like what we’ve got here in Central Oregon… where we’re also running out of water.

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