A Spenard development is rapidly changing the neighborhood. It’s barely making a dent in Anchorage’s housing demand.
An affordable developer has given the heart of Spard a $40 million facelift.
The Cook Inlet Housing Authority has built a cluster of apartment complexes near the corner of 36th Avenue and Spenard Road in Anchorage, replacing a contaminated industrial site, a strip club and car dealerships with about 100 apartments. It has converted an old church into a community center, bought and modernized commercial buildings and created a few new duplexes and triplex apartments out of old houses.
You are not done yet.
The nonprofit housing agency is expanding 48 units in the area this summer and plans to build dozens more homes next year if it can secure funding, agency officials said. A subsidiary of Cook Inlet Region Inc., a regional Alaska Native company, the agency uses local, state, and federal support to build housing for all income earners, although it primarily serves low- to middle-income people.
Housing market watchers say housing is critical as rents soar in Anchorage. The larger two-bedroom units often cost just over $1,000 a month, not including electricity, below the average market price for an Anchorage apartment, which costs $1,339.
But they’re still only a small part of the solution to Anchorage’s tremendous need for more housing.
Demand for the apartments is very high, said Sezy Gerow-Hanson, a spokeswoman for the agency. She said the agency received nearly 2,400 applications for 68 units last year.
“There’s a lot of competition right now,” she said during a tour of the area last month.
[Rental prices for homes and apartments rise in Alaska, led by a sharp spike in Anchorage]
Longtime Spenard residents say the improvements have revitalized a busy corridor with new landscaping and buildings, mostly adorned with the solar panels Cook Inlet Housing often uses to reduce operating costs. They hope the changes will plant a seed that will encourage other owners to make their own improvements.
Candida Joseph, 65, recently moved into a new 19-unit building for senior citizens on nearby Chugach Way. The apartments have large windows that let in lots of light and open floor plans for the kitchen and living area.
Joseph sat in a walker in the sun near the building early last month and said she had previously been homeless. She now pays $800 a month for a second-floor one-bedroom apartment, a price her limited income can afford.
“I love it here,” she said. “And I love my view.”
A “holistic” community
The upgrades near the agency’s longstanding offices at 3510 Spenard Road have been in the works for years.
“It’s just lovely what they’re doing,” said Harriet Drummond, state representative for the area.
The intersection used to be a dive bar, she said.
But about 10 years ago, Cook Inlet Housing acquired PJ’s strip club at a federal auction after the owner was convicted on charges that he used the location to sell cocaine.
The agency picked up several other properties, including the site of a former gas station that closed in the 1990s after underground tanks contaminated the ground.
Cook Inlet cleaned up pollution and built its first residential home in the area in 2017, replacing the strip club at 3600 Spenard.
The 33-unit mixed-use building features balconies, exposed wood-beam awnings, and the offices of the Cook Inlet Lending Center, part of the home loan and small business lending agency.
Cook Inlet Housing added a second multi-family complex last year at 1310 W. 32nd Ave.
Three more buildings will be added this summer on nearby Chugach Way, a $14 million investment known as Phase 1 of Ch’bala Corners. Two buildings have recently been completed, including the seniors’ complex and an eight family home. Another complex of 21 family units will be completed soon.
[Some Alaska workers are facing a crisis in housing. Employers hope that if they build it, employees will come.]
The agency is also working to attract funding in hopes of building dozens more homes in Ch’bala Corners next summer. The stringing together of federal tax credits and philanthropic grants is highly competitive, factors that could delay those plans, said Mark Fineman, the agency’s vice president of development.
Jeannette Lee, a senior researcher who focuses on housing policy for the Sightline Institute, a Seattle think tank, said Cook Inlet developed a “holistic approach to community building” at Spenard.
The refurbished 1950s church called The Nave, formerly The Church of Love, is a meeting place for public events. The mix of residential and commercial spaces, including a low-rise office building along Spenard and a commercial kitchen along 36th Street, supports pedestrian and bicycle traffic. It’s close to the bus route, further reducing the need for a car, Lee said.
The concept reduces rent and transport costs that biggest household expenses in Alaska, at a time of rapid inflation, she said.
“Housing shouldn’t be a huge drain on people’s household budgets,” she said. “The overall vision and the goal they have in mind is good.”
Inspire other development
The residents of Spenard said so hope the apartments will attract new business and investment and ease the troubles in the area.
Irene Persson-Gamble, a longtime resident and Spenard Community Council member, said that during the Alaskan oil boom that began in the 1970s, many Spenard residents took advantage and left to buy larger homes elsewhere, with some homes were neglected. Massage parlors that doubled as brothels also sprung up in Spenard as workers flocked to Alaska, she said.
“It was a rough area,” she said. “I used to look at it and think, why don’t we just fix some of this stuff?”
Now Cook Inlet Housing is doing that, she said.
“I’m impressed,” she said of the improvements, speaking as an individual and not as a member of the local council.
The new developments have prompted at least one property owner to invest in the area.
Ryan Callaway said he bought and modernized a building in the area about six years ago to house his North Harbor Wealth Management business, knowing Cook Inlet Housing was planning to make major investments in Spenard.
Encouraged by what he saw Callaway said he now plans to construct a second building for his store on the site at Minnesota Boulevard and 36th Avenue. He hopes Cook Inlet’s efforts will inspire other landowners to make improvements, and real estate values rise.
[Alaska house prices jumped last year to a record $389,000]
“I wouldn’t feel comfortable building new offices if the area was in decline versus what I see as an upswing,” he said.
Anchorage developer J. Jay Brooks owns two trailer sites on Chugach Way. He said Cook Inlet Housing has made a “transformative” change in the area by bringing in quality, medium-density development.
“They replaced a number of vacant, contaminated lots and a patchwork of unsightly areas,” he said. “What they have done is a great win for the whole community.”
Ideas for more living in Anchorage
Cook Inlet Housing has been operating since 1974. Before focusing on Spenard, it was primarily focused on Mountain View in East Anchorage.
The agency has built 900 units across Anchorage over the past decade, Cook Inlet Housing officials said.
Shaun Debenham, a private home builder at Debenham LLC, said the agency is doing a great job replacing some of the city‘s extremely outdated homes, he said.
But Cook Inlet’s success also highlights the extreme shortage of housing built in Anchorage by private developers for people who don’t qualify for income-dependent housing, Debenham said.
Only a small number of market-rate homes at market-rate rents have been built in the past decade, Debenham said.
The cost of land and construction tends to be just too expensive, he said.
Debenham is building 48 market-leading downtown apartments in the Block 96 Flats project, funded by the City of Anchorage. Rents between 1,500 and 1,800 US dollars are planned.
Debenham said Anchorage’s city planners had said the city needed hundreds of new homes of any type each year. But that hasn’t happened in years.
The lack of housing is why Anchorage’s population and employment base has been shrinking for years, he said. Meanwhile, the valley — in the Matanuska-Susitna region — has grown steadily, he said.
“We need all kinds of housing to be a prosperous, hard-working city,” he said.
Lee, the Sightline Institute researcher, said more flexibility in Anchorage’s building codes, such as relaxing minimum parking requirements, could help make housing more affordable for private homebuilders.
Adam Trombley, the city’s chief of economic and community development, said the city intends to lower minimum parking requirements in certain areas, such as For example, in neighborhoods along Lake Otis Parkway, to make more land available for housing. Among other things, attempts are also being made to expand areas in which temporary tax breaks are permitted. This could bring new developments and rising values, and increase cities’ property taxes in the long run.
The mayor supports efforts like those of the Cook Inlet Housing Authority that are creating new housing, Trombley said.
“It’s a great revival for Spenard,” he said.
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