By Melinda Munson
Housing for the Munsons, like so many Skagwegians, has been problematic. It started in January of 2020 when Publisher Larry Percily awarded The Skagway News to myself and business partner, Gretchen Wehmhoff.
Gretchen would remain in Southcentral Alaska with long visits to Skagway. My plan was to relocate to the cruise ship destination as soon as possible.
“I don’t know how you’ll find housing but I decided that’s your problem,” Larry said, clearly worried my family of seven kids might end up homeless.
I can move mountains when necessary, so I started flexing. There was a house in Dyea. I called — gone. There was an apartment on Sixth Avenue. Not big enough — but we could rent two units for a total of $4,000. I called the campgrounds and trailer parks. Could we stay the entire summer, until seasonal workers left and housing opened up in the fall? No, and no.
I was finally introduced to Jean Worley who was putting in a new three-bedroom modular. Her prospective tenants had fallen through and she was crazy enough to rent to our brood. It was her idea to give the master bedroom to the kids. We installed two bunk beds and loaded in four children. My husband and I took one of the smaller rooms, the three-year-old who bites got his own room, and the eight-year-old who pinches got the couch.
It was like living in a ship. If something wasn’t tidily put away, the whole system fell in on itself. We kept our two upright freezers full of wild fish in the living room. My husband’s “garage,” a tall metal shelf stacked with tools and crabbing gear, sat by the front door.
As much as I tried to be grateful that we had safe lodging, I began to get house hungry. I studied the exteriors of Skagway’s homes as I walked to work, noticing the number of windows, the porch with storage that wasn’t being used, the fenced in yard where kids could play. I became a little obsessed. I didn’t wish anyone harm but wasn’t there someone in town who wanted to move where it was warmer and the wind blew softly?
After our eight year old had to be separated from his siblings and put into his own rental, my anxiety escalated. What would happen to him when we had to give the employee housing back in the spring? Buying a house no longer meant increased square footage and a lower house payment. It meant my son wouldn’t have to live in a group home in a different borough, accessible only by ferry or small plane.
It was a happy day when a friend of our former police chief phoned. The chief was leaving town and wanted to sell his house. I should call. Hallelujah.
The chief and his wife could have sold their house to a jewelry company and made more money, but they said they wanted their home to go to a family. After three excruciating months of working with a mortgage broker and an $1,800 appraisal, we bought the little red house on a double lot. The property includes a second building — a light yellow church whose congregation hosted free burger nights every Wednesday. (The chief was also a pastor.)
We plan to turn the church into an unofficial group home. By the end of the year, three kids will be residing a few steps from the main house.
We didn’t hire an inspector to look at the buildings. It seemed like a futile effort in a town where housing prices are fixed and many residents wait ten years or more for their chance at the American Dream.
Every day we discover something quirky about the house, built (maybe) in the 60s and added onto at various points in time. One room is always stiflingly hot, while the room next door is frigid. The stairs are a little off but if you fall, they’re heavily carpeted so it doesn’t hurt.
The house beams with natural light and the various nooks and crannies are perfect for hide and seek or when Mom wants a minute of quiet with a chocolate bar.
We can’t wait for the thaw to see what treasures the yard holds, to visit with the chickens and to install our beehives. One thing we will remember: never fire up the grill on Wednesdays, or the whole town will appear expecting a free meal.