By Aly De Angelus
In the late 1890s, Skagway was packed tight with 10,000 gold rushers shoulder to shovel, many dreaming of wealth and prosperity but also dreaming of a warm place to sleep. More than 120 years later, the town still needs more housing.
The chronic housing shortage is pushing the community to look for solutions, and Mayor Andrew Cremata hopes that things will move forward more rapidly than in the past.
“We have looked at multiple other communities, not just Alaska, at how they do things and the problem is that our situation is very unique,” Cremata said.
“We are the 18th most visited cruise ship port in the world with a year-round population of 1,028 … a season population of 3,000 and 1.1 million visitors coming next year. That dynamic doesn’t exist anywhere else,” he said.
Cremata used Juneau as a case study to examine housing trust funds, which are distinct funds established by a municipal or state government that receive continual funding to support the preservation of affordable housing. However, he believes Skagway does not have enough land to make it work.
Instead, Cremata points to plans to relocate the Garden City RV Park as “a huge help.” This project is a derivative of the 2019 strategic plan drafted with Skagway Development Corp. (SDC).
The population of Skagway is expected to grow at a continual rate. If the RV park moves north of 23rd Avenue and across the Skagway River, vacating its site on State Street, there will be 3.5 acres with flat, developable land within three to five years and the possibility of 50 to 90-plus new dwelling units.
SDC’s full 2019 strategic plan draft, which was sent to borough Planning and Zoning Commission for review in November, states that 38 percent of Skagway’s population is below the age of 34. This increase of youth in Skagway is causing many community members to reimagine housing needs that address a more diverse demographic of citizens.
Kaitlyn Jared, SDC executive director, remembers a light enrollment of students for her senior year at Skagway School, estimating 83 students in the entire school in 2011. In comparison, the school district has added over 40 students in the past eight years.
“In 2020 I think you are going to see the fruition of some of the last couple years of work in Planning and Zoning,” said Matt Deach, commission chair, who is optimistic about this year’s progress in housing variety, accessibility and affordability.
Deach points to changes in allowable conditional use of triplexes on a single lot, mother-in-law apartments and accessory housing units as some of the issues alleviated in 2019, along with the approval of housing units in the residential conservation district.
Despite large strides toward solving the age-old housing crisis in Skagway, Deach is hyper-focused on two solutions to drive the new year. The first solution is enforcing municipal codes on housing.
“What works is enforcement. What doesn’t work is cutting corners and pinching pennies,” Deach said. “This is going to sound incredibly harsh, but the employers that are allowing their employees to live in vans on the street should not be operating a business in Skagway … The cost of subsidizing your business should not be at the expense of everybody’s quality of life in this town.”
The second solution is to increase community involvement from the private industry.
“Private industry is not going to step up and take the reins to build what they need if they don’t have to,” Deach said. “If we allow them to continue operating for next to nothing, the way they’ve always done it, then of course they are not going to spend more money and invest in the community.”
Frustrated by the status quo of seasonal housing, Deach has even considered the benefit of the town’s involvement with private-industry housing. To him, the economy, the businesses, the sewer system and recycling facilities are all connected, and the community must work together for long-term change to form.
Deach has unofficially proposed a study at Planning and Zoning work sessions, which would involve hiring a law firm to determine the advantages and disadvantages of the borough getting into the real estate business for housing that could provide for several hundred employees on land in town or across the bridge.
“I don’t think we would be doing it at a loss. I think we could really benefit the community by at least doing a study and looking at it,” said Deach.
Jaime Bricker, White Pass & Yukon Route Railway director of public relations, is a fifth-generation woman of White Pass and her success in housing roughly 60 to 65 employees per year is contingent upon hiring locally and establishing a solid reputation as clean and orderly tenants.
Bricker feels fortunate to have community members reaching out to her when rentals in the area become available, though she says that it comes at a large price.
“I realize that what we pay sustains other people in Skagway, people that are counting on that secondary rental income,” Bricker said.
Conscientious of the delicate balancing act in the market, Bricker admits she has concerns for the future. “Our owners do, our senior managers do … but we just have to be really responsible with how we move forward to make sure that whatever we do is gradual.”
Jared’s work with the SDC predominantly echoes a slow-moving process as well to avoid disrupting the market. She says that Skagway’s low winter revenue may help for federal aid, as it pushes the unemployment rate and median income levels down. Ultimately, Jared believes that development of the port is the most efficient way to capitalize on other strong businesses in town that are hiding under the cruise ships’ shadows.
“It’s hard because in the summertime our port is so congested that we don’t have the port space to bring in more ships of varying types,” Jared said, such as fuel barges.
By summer 2021, Cremata expects to see water and sewer service out past Moore Bridge that he believes will help ease the housing crisis. Though the issue of housing is complex, the mayor is confident that Skagway will create strong, eco-friendly solutions that service the town long-term.
“I think in some ways there has been progress. We have a lot more people than we did 10 years ago, a lot more seasonal, even more residents, Cremata said. “Maybe the rate of growth has been a little bit stronger than our ability to deal with that rate of growth.”