For the youngest member of the Sitka planning committee, affordable housing is a top priority


One of the reasons Katie Riley joined the planning commission was to tackle affordable housing issues in her hometown. “I am a young person living in Sitka, and one of the main things that young people in Sitka talk about is not having the means to live here,” she said. “So I wanted to be part of, you know, the solution and see how I can work to fix it.”

Katie Riley, 28, grew up in Sitka. After leaving college and working abroad, she returned to her hometown and decided to get involved. She is the youngest member of the Sitka Planning Commission and is passionate about solving the affordable housing crisis in Sitka. Erin McKinstry of KCAW spoke with Riley about the problem and possible solutions as part of a special “Building Solutions” series.

KCAW: How long have you been a member of the Planning Commission?

KR: Since October 2020.

KCAW: And what made you want to be part of the commission?

KR So what made me want to be a part of the commission was that I was really interested in the overall plan and kind of a long term view of how our community is growing and looking like, and you know, what kind of possibilities are available to residents. Because you know, for the long term sustainability of the city, and then also, I was very interested in bringing up the affordable housing issue, because, you know, I’m a youngster living in Sitka, and one of the main things that young people living in Sitka talk about not having the means to live here. So I wanted to be part of, you know, the solution and see how I can work to fix it.

KCAW And do you have personal experience of it as well? Or is it more like friends?

KR It’s a lot of friends. Uh, I’m extremely lucky because my, my dad is actually a landlord, he owns several real estate properties around Sitka. So I praise him and have a firsthand understanding of some of the larger dynamics, I think you know it’s really easy to look at things in different ways. But I like to think that I have a little more of a holistic perspective, you know, hearing a lot of my peers on the challenges that owners hear about the challenges, knowing the economics of maintenance and trying to deliver. housing in this market. I mean, whenever you look at issues that face large swathes of the community, you have to talk both to the people that it affects directly, and also to the people who you know are blamed for it. . Or we ask them to come up with solutions and find out what their take is as to why this is, or is not, feasible, because the contractors in town, you know, the builders, like, they know the ‘economy. We can complain about the cost of housing, but if we don’t understand, you know, what the cost is to the people actually fitting out the property and how those are dealt with. It’s kind of like set here, just the base price is very, very high to bring in building materials and all that, you know we’re not, we’re not going to have a productive conversation, and that is going to be more like an argument and kind of a blame game. And so I like to listen to all the sides available.

KCAW So we’ve kind of established that affordable housing is an issue in the community. And you already pointed out one of the reasons which is like, the cost of building materials is quite high. The cost of construction in general is really high. Are there any other things that you consider to be important factors in this really complicated problem in Sitka. Why is it so expensive to find a house or rent an apartment here?

KR Yes, you know, we have very little developable land, one of the main reasons that hinders the creation of affordable housing is that very little flat and stable land. And not much municipality owned land, as we live in a liminal space, right between the Tongass National Forest and the ocean, and build on that kind of little square real estate land that is Sitka. So you’re really limited by both natural features and land ownership, but I would say mostly natural features, right. And then, the cost of developing land, even that which is available for utilities. And only basic infrastructure is extremely expensive. So not just the building materials for the house itself, but just to prepare the ground and also like, you know, we live around a huge amount of wetlands and it’s very difficult to build on areas. wet. So that’s another complicating factor, I think. So you know there is a real need to be creative in the way we approach this crisis and not everyone with a single family home is necessarily what will work in Sitka, Alaska going forward, you know if we if we want to. grow as a community,

KCAW You use the word crisis, do you see it as a crisis?

KR Uh, yeah, I see it as a crisis because, you know, there are a lot of my peers literally looking to move out of town, because they can’t find housing, neither do I host them not all year round, you know, it’s like, they have winter housing, but then summer comes, they get kicked out. There aren’t, you know, places available for them and their animals. Finding accommodation for pets is a huge problem. So, you know, when you have young people leaving a community, not because they can’t find a job, or because they don’t have good friends or a social support system, but just because they can’t find a place to live like that for me it’s yeah, it’s a crisis, you know, it’s our economic base which is moving away, it’s the future of this city, like, we need young people here to invest in Sitka and make it their home, you know, for the future resilience of our city. And the more it becomes unaffordable, and the less entry there is into the housing market, I think the more the crisis gets worse. Also, the factors that we can see on the horizon, the expansion of the hospital, the potential arrival of a new Coast Guard vessel, you know, the expansion of our tourism industry and the workforce. of seasonal labor that will be needed to accompany that, those are all the factors that I think will take, you know, the situation, you could say that we have now and certainly make it into a crisis like very quickly.

KCAW So we’ve kind of established the problem and some of the causes of the problem. What do you think are the solutions to the problem?

KR That’s the million dollar question, right? Uh, I think there is no quick fix. There is no one way to approach affordable housing in Sitka, you have to use as many different ideas and attract as many different people as possible to come up with those ideas. So I’m really encouraged by some of the ideas I hear uh, one of them is an increased focus on planned unit developments. They are called PUD. The Sitka Community Land Trust is a type of planned unit development. What Brendan Jones and the stowaway companies want to do with the old Presbyterian church is the type of plan unit development where you sort of develop a lot of housing units, in conjunction with others. potential land uses, you know, small community spaces, increasing walking, creating these new kinds of neighborhoods, while at the same time creating denser living spaces, right. So I think denser housing is one of the solutions. And smaller, allowing for smaller lots, is one of them and, you know, the city is pursuing these solutions, which is really cool. I think they reduced the minimum lot size from 8,000 square feet to 6,000 square feet just like in 2019. And that could be further reduced. And ADUs, accessory housing units, are another really interesting opportunity to create more housing. And I would like to see these more widely permitted uses, as permitted uses in areas where they make sense. And how can the city work with the tribe and with the Baranof Island Housing Authority to create more affordable housing opportunities, especially for low-income residents. Because that’s another, you know, a large segment of our population, I think that’s affected by the housing affordability issue and you also know, facing these choices like leaving the community and that’s , you know, this town is for all the people that live here and people shouldn’t be kicked out because they can’t afford, you know, to find housing.

Throughout April and May, KCAW News will bring you articles on affordable housing solutions every Friday as part of our “Building Solutions” series. Erin McKinstry is a member of Report for America Corps.


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