Rep. Dan Ortiz, I-Ketchikan, right, reacts as Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tompkins, D-Sitka, mentions a bill to move legislative meetings to Anchorage as they speak at the Native Issues Forum with Sen. Jesse Kiehl, D-Juneau, left, and Rep. Andi Story, D-Juneau, in the Elizabeth Peratrovich Hall on Wednesday, March 13, 2019. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Rep. Dan Ortiz, I-Ketchikan, right, reacts as Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tompkins, D-Sitka, mentions a bill to move legislative meetings to Anchorage as they speak at the Native Issues Forum with Sen. Jesse Kiehl, D-Juneau, left, and Rep. Andi Story, D-Juneau, in the Elizabeth Peratrovich Hall on Wednesday, March 13, 2019. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Kiehl: ‘We’re pulling so hard to keep from going backwards’ on senior housing shortage

Lawmakers say budget has dominated conversation, leaving little time for progressive conversations

Housing for seniors was a concern for Alaska Natives attending a forum on Wednesday, but lawmakers said it’s hard to look to the future when they are just trying to “keep from going backwards.”

Questions at a Native Issues Forum Wednesday afternoon focused on housing, specifically creating more affordable housing for seniors and low-income residents. But Sen. Jesse Kiehl, D-Juneau, said that conversations at the Capitol have been focused on the budget, and some of Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s proposed cuts to things like the Pioneer Homes and Medicaid.

“What you’re hearing us say, I think, is subtext,” Kiehl said. “We’re pulling so hard to keep from going backwards, that we’re finding ourselves a little short on time and resources to try and move forward on the senior housing issue. And it’s not for lack of awareness.”

Kiehl, Rep. Andi Story, D-Juneau, Rep. Dan Ortiz, I-Ketchikan, and Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, D-Sitka, all answered questions regarding the shortage of housing for seniors, veterans and others.

[Legislature working to avoid ‘devastating’ cuts, Juneau lawmakers say]

Ortiz said they haven’t spoken specifically on senior housing yet, because most of the conversations in the legislature have focused on the governor’s proposed budget. He said a major issue is not enough supply of low-income housing and apartment rentals for seasonal workers.

“The same would be true for senior housing,” Ortiz said. “The average age of residents is getting higher and these people fall into more fixed income levels, since many are retired. The availability of housing for seniors is a problem.”

But Ortiz said Southeast Alaska and the state overall is nothing if not a group of people who can overcome challenges. He said he’s hopeful that there will be thriving folks working well to continue to make Southeast Alaska a place where people can afford a home.

Sen. Jesse Kiehl, D-Juneau, left, Rep. Andi Story, D-Juneau, Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tompkins, D-Sitka, and Rep. Dan Ortiz, I-Ketchikan, right, speak at the Native Issues Forum in the Elizabeth Peratrovich Hall on Wednesday, March 13, 2019. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Sen. Jesse Kiehl, D-Juneau, left, Rep. Andi Story, D-Juneau, Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tompkins, D-Sitka, and Rep. Dan Ortiz, I-Ketchikan, right, speak at the Native Issues Forum in the Elizabeth Peratrovich Hall on Wednesday, March 13, 2019. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Kreiss-Tomkins said the State Affairs committee will be hearing the bill that proposes moving the capitol from Juneau to Anchorage. Although he said he hopes to never hear that bill, which got some chuckles from the crowd.

Story said she’s thrilled to be part of the House Majority to be able to have a strong voice for the needs of Juneau and Southeast Alaska.

“The Senate and the House are working good together. We’re also trying to keep a good working relationship with the governor,” Story said. “We all care deeply.”

Story wanted to thank elders who have been behind housing issues for decades, and she mentioned that Juneau has one of the lowest vacancy rates in the state.

“This does not put pressure, I want to be very respectful to all the people who are landlords, but there’s not a lot of support to put in new carpet, flooring, basic things to keep our homes that we rent looking well, so I would really like to see that move forward,” Story said.

She said one thing in the governor’s budget concerns her. Dunleavy has a proposal to cut $11 million out of $12 million to homeless programs. She says 601 individuals received services through those programs last year, so this would be extremely downsizing, and that she will be advocating to not cut that from the budget.

“I am tired of not prioritizing the people’s needs — the faces of our children, of our elders, and forward funding issues like the ferry where you need to have a schedule to run more than year by year, and same with education,” Story said. “You need to forward fund education.”

[Frustrations run high as many testify in support of ferry system]

Kiehl said many of his committees don’t directly deal with housing, but he’s on the Senate Transportation committee that does work with the ferry system.

“The Marine Highway System is the road to most Southeast Alaska communities,” Kiehl said. “Every community has the opportunity to move freight, building materials, workers on the ferry. One of the challenges that you’ve heard my colleagues talk about is the cost. You won’t hear me apologize to address the cost of labor in Southeast, I have no complaints with people earning a living wage. But the cost to move materials around is high.”

He said it’s important to think holistically about the housing issue, from the cost of materials to the economy.

“When we look at the entire picture … we need apartment buildings and condos, and we need higher rise development in addition to single family homes,” Kiehl said. He added Alaska also need more transitional housing for people getting out of prison. He also applauded Tlingit and Haida for working on this issue.

The forum was in partnership with the Tlingit Haida Regional Housing Authority, which is sponsoring its first summit on the housing issue. The summit is also sponsored by the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska among others and is geared toward generating discussion about housing and homelessness problems and solutions in Southeast Alaska. It is hoped to become an annual event.


• Contact reporter Mollie Barnes at mbarnes@juneauempire.com.


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