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Alaska employers hope that if they build housing, employees will come

Some employers in Alaska are building housing for workers, in an effort to address a severe labor shortage.

This includes Alyeska Resort in Girdwood, which is building a $6.6 million facility designed for middle management employees, who are finding it increasingly difficult to find affordable accommodation there. Elsewhere in Alaska, efforts are underway to convert former military barracks and a Space Force portable camp into housing for workers.

Employers hope the new housing will help find and retain workers while relieving pressure on extremely tight property markets that have reduced rental options in many cities.

Labor and housing shortages have become an especially pressing issue for many Alaskan communities, escalating during the pandemic.

“Things were bad before, but now we are coming to desperate times,” said Krystal Hoke, estate agent and resident of Girdwood.

In Girdwood, Alyeska Resort recently inaugurated a new three-storey building. It will accommodate 120 people in approximately 70 studios and one-bedroom apartments.

Sacha Jurva, general manager of the Alyeska Resort, said the lack of accommodation has contributed to a shortage of workers at the resort, which recently opened an outdoor spa.

The new housing should increase employee longevity and help the resort attract employees, Jurva said. The opening is scheduled for next summer.

Residents say Girdwood’s housing and labor market have been impacted by the same forces that affect many Alaskan towns.

Landlords are increasingly renting to tourists through Airbnb and other websites, taking long-term rentals out of the market. Soaring demand for homeownership, driven by low interest rates during the pandemic, has compounded the problem. Meanwhile, workers are restricted across Alaska as tourism heats up, two years after unemployment hit record highs during the pandemic.

Hoke said rooms were rarely let out at Girdwood. If they do, there’s a line of people needing it, it won’t be cheap – and the place might come without plumbing.

“Finding anything below $1,500 a month is very difficult,” Hoke said.

This excludes many city service workers from the market, she said. Teachers and other professionals have also had to leave Girdwood because of the situation, said Hoke, a member of the Girdwood Land Trust, a non-profit organization working on its own plan to build more housing for workers in the town.

Marco Zaccaro, a Girdwood architect whose firm is designing the Alyeska project, said he will free up rental space in Girdwood as some Alyeska workers move into the building.

Some of the city’s workforce lives in cars and tents pitched in the woods because they can’t afford a place, Zaccaro said.

This was designed to house lower-level workers like elevator attendants, he said.

“Now everyone is affected, so it’s more for middle managers,” he said. “They don’t want to live in a shack without running water.”

In Hoonah, a village in southeast Alaska, the Huna Totem Alaska Native Village Society imported a men’s camp that had been used at the base of Clear Space Force Station about 80 miles outside of Fairbanks.

The camp, with 48 beds and 24 rooms, was torn down this spring to provide housing for company workers at the Icy Strait Point cruise ship destination, said Fred Parady, chief operating officer at Huna Totem.

In Homer, which has a population of 6,000, lack of housing contributes to a labor shortage that limits business growth, said Brad Anderson, director of the Homer Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center.

Anchor 907, a government contracting company in Homer owned by two Navy retirees, offered to create housing by importing surplus military barracks from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage.

“It’s really needed,” Anderson said. “We are approaching 300 unfilled jobs, and we have no housing available.”

Michael Daniel, co-owner of Anchor 907, said the growth in vacation rentals has seriously hurt the long-term rental market.

Some workers in cities stay in sheds and trailers, he said. An unplumbed cabin was recently available for $1,100 a month, and only for six weeks.

“A yurt costs $2,100 a month without running water between June and September on Airbnb,” he said. “It shows you how impossible it is for the workers here.”