By Larry Persily

Skagway will need at least 150 new housing units by 2030 if the community wants to attract young adults and families as year-round residents while also accommodating its growing population of school-age children and senior citizens.

That’s the projection in the Skagway 2030 Comprehensive Plan and the advice of the lead consultant on the project.

The comp plan, as it is known, will go before the Planning and Zoning Commission for a public hearing Jan. 15. It recommends the borough establish a one- to two-year Mayor’s Housing Task Force with staff support to develop, advocate and track housing objectives.

“A plan is only successful if action follows it,” said Barbara Sheinberg, lead consultant on the planning project which started about a year ago.

The action plan proposes that the task force include borough assembly and planning commission members, along with representatives from the Skagway Development Corp., Skagway Traditional Council, National Park Service, business owners with seasonal employees, the real estate and construction industries, churches, senior citizens and people looking for their first home.

“Somebody at the city should be accountable” to constantly push ahead with housing objectives, Sheinberg said Dec. 31.

The issue is older than the estimated need for at least 150 new housing units. That projection “does not include the current pent-up housing demand for affordable smaller homes, condominiums, and starter homes for young families,” the plan says.

The lack of housing in town is “an emergency,” said Matt Deach, chair of the Planning and Zoning Commission. Deach, whose term expired in the fall, said he has committed to stay on the commission until the comp plan is adopted.

The commission’s public work session to review the plan is scheduled to start at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 15, at city hall.

The commission is scheduled to hold a special meeting at 5:30 p.m. Jan. 23 to consider approving the plan, which would serve as a guide — not a mandate — for the borough. The ordinance could go to the assembly for introduction at the Feb. 6 meeting, with a public hearing and assembly vote to adopt the plan Feb. 20.

“I am eager to hear what members of the community have to say about it,” Mayor Andrew Cremata said Dec. 30.

The comp plan is emphatic in what it says: “The ability to find a place to live is a critical determinant of the future.” Looking at household incomes and home prices in Skagway, “between 30 and 50 percent of Skagway households cannot afford the median-priced home” without committing more than 30 percent of their income to housing, the plan says.

“Young people and families cannot afford them,” said Sheinberg, who started her Juneau-based consulting business in 1988 — with Skagway as her first client.

If the community “doesn’t get some more housing built, it could stall out their economic opportunities,” she said, adding that even when summer tourism workers want to stay year-round, they cannot find affordable housing.

Skagway’s population, which the state estimated at 1,088 residents for 2018, is projected to reach 1,249 by 2030. Of that gain, the comp plan projects school enrollment will grow by 40 students by 2030, while the community’s senior population (65 and older) will expand by 66 residents.

Add to those numbers a projected increase in working adults in the tourism, freight transportation and other year-round jobs, and the housing crunch looks even worse.

Affordable starter homes are needed, especially for new families, Sheinberg said. “Young families seem to me to be the key to strengthening” the community’s year-round population.

“Families and retires are the backbone of the wintertime and year-round population,” the plan says.

It’s not just housing, but also continued investment in education, recreational opportunities and community services that attract and keep year-round residents, the report says.

Such as, the projected enrollment growth of 40 students in the next 10 years will require “another classroom or two, and more teachers … (and) this will put a greater strain on the Skagway School.”

The municipality’s plans to extend water and sewer lines across the Skagway River to the Klondike Highway, relocate the Garden City RV Park to a new site across the river and develop the RV park’s State Street property for housing will help but not solve the housing shortage, the comp plan says. Besides, in addition to needing more year-round housing, the community needs more housing for summer workers.

Skagway’s population more than doubles in the summer as the tourism-focused economy continues to grow, with 90 percent of all retail sales occurring during the summer season, the plan says. That shows up in the borough’s sales tax receipts, which are projected to bring in four times of the amount from property taxes this year. Juneau, by comparison, splits its revenues about equally between sales and property taxes.
Without discounting the need for more housing, Deach, the Planning and Zoning Commission chair, said there are other things the borough could do to improve life in the community. Such as provide more space for pedestrians downtown, especially when the community is jammed with cruise ship passengers, and maybe make turn Broadway and State into one-way streets.

“Right now, it’s barely workable,” he said of summer traffic.

Broadway could become one-way northbound and State Street one-way southbound, he said.

“Skagway has treated tourism as a happy accident,” Deach said. Acknowledging the financial benefits of tourists, the community could “accommodate more if we take it seriously.”

Stepped-up enforcement of parking rules and zoning codes, particularly against illegal summer housing, could push businesses to develop and invest in more housing for their seasonal workers, he said.