A nationwide housing shortage is playing out across Alaska, but perhaps nowhere in the state is it as bad as Girdwood, the mountain resort town 40 miles south of Anchorage.
“I’ve been asked a few times, how you describe it in a single word,” said resident Mike Edgington, who works on land issues as part of the Girdwood Board of Supervisors. “And I think it’s ‘crisis.’”
Tax appraisals show the average value of a home grew five times as fast in Girdwood as the rest of Anchorage over the past year, and the market rate is likely much higher.
Anecdotally, residents say they’ve seen housing prices nearly double in the past five years.
The jump is driven by high labor costs, rising costs of construction materials, and a land shortage. There’s also the pandemic-induced move to remote work, which has made Girdwood, with its snow-covered peaks and extensive hiking trail network, an attractive place for remote workers.
“We see people now who are buying that could work anywhere in the world. I’ve sold homes to people who work internationally, and who come here in the wintertime,” said Sam Daniel, who owns Glacier City Realty, “They may commute once or twice, but they’re here for the heli skiing and the powder skiing.”
In other words, Girdwood is becoming a “Zoom Town.”
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“It is the hottest market in Alaska. Period,” said Daniel, who lived in Girdwood for 30 years before moving to Anchorage.
And it’s having real effects on the community. Just ask piano teacher Autumn Laemmrich, who recently was forced out of the Girdwood housing market after living there for 8 years. She hoped to raise a family there, but realized that prices had gotten too high when she started seeing two bedroom houses in need of repairs selling for more than $500,000.
“When we really had that breaking point of ‘Okay, this is it. We are going to have to leave Girdwood.’ I cried probably every day, because it was my dream to live here,” she said.
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She ended up buying a house in Bayshore in Anchorage.
Girdwood resident Ashley Kearns spent the last two years living in a bus outfitted with a wood stove until it burned down last year. Kearns estimated about 30 others are also living in buses and RVs parked around town, plus another half dozen living in vans.
She managed to find a rental recently, but she’s competing not just with locals, but also Anchorage residents who are willing to pay for a rental in order to use it on winter weekends for skiing at the resort. Her new rental isn’t great.
“It’s sloping into the earth. It’s got a pretty big lean. There’s a lot of spiders. It’s tumbling down,” she said.
Just 30% of the houses in Girdwood are owned by people who live there, according to an analysis of property records that Edgington did. That’s one of the lowest rates in the country, even compared to mountain resort towns like Aspen and Breckenridge.
Edgington, a former speech recognition engineer, said it’s affecting who can live in Girdwood. He said the town needs fewer people like himself.
“Over time that has a hollowing effect on our community. It means younger families can’t afford to stay here, and they leave and it sort of kills off the community aspect of the community,” he said.
It also exacerbates a shortage of workers. Many restaurants are operating at reduced hours or closing entirely, in part because workers can’t afford to live in town and don’t want to commute.
“I’ve had multiple people apply for jobs and not even want to go through the interview process because they’re looking for places to live,” said Kim VanSickle, a manager at a local helicopter company.
It also means that the fire department has just about 15 volunteer employees who live in town out of nearly 50. The rest have to commute from Anchorage if there is a large-scale emergency.
“There is no one single silver bullet”
Community leaders are trying to fix the problem, but there are no easy or quick solutions.
The most attainable is a change to land use codes to allow accessory dwelling units, commonly known as mother-in-law apartments. They’re currently restricted in Girdwood, which is under the government of the Municipality of Anchorage but had its zoning codes written 10 years before land-use regulations were passed.
“We’re taking the changes which were applied in Anchorage and adding some others that we’ve seen work in other resort communities,” said Edgington, who is pushing for the changes.
He said he’s also working to regulate overnight rentals — Airbnbs or VRBO rentals. Aside from a bed tax, those units don’t pay any tax to the communities they operate in and they sometimes contribute to problems with parking and trash and noise.
“Just from a neighborhood point of view and a nuisance point of view, we want to put in some regulation to basically encourage short-term rentals to be better neighbors,” said Edgington.
There’s also a shortage of land to build new houses. Krystal Hoke works with the Girdwood Community Land Trust, which advocates for attainable housing for Girdwood residents and is pushing the Anchorage Heritage Land Bank to open up some of its land for workforce housing and other community needs.
The city recently requested proposals for up to 150 acres of residential development and two companies submitted proposals. But Hoke said she fears the developers will prioritize market-rate housing.
“We’re not even at the table,” said Hoke.
Part of the problem is structural and dates back decades. Girdwood was once “The City of Girdwood” prior to the Municipality of Anchorage unification in the 1970s. Hoke said Girdwood development has been difficult because projects are expected to follow rules better designed for Anchorage.
Title 21, which governs Anchorage’s land use, calls for things like paved roads, sidewalks, and lighting for new developments. That means extra costs for developers, which Hoke fears will drive up already high prices.
“Essentially the people that live here in Girdwood will become priced out. And then we will not have a sustainable economy because we are importing all of our workforce. And I don’t think that’s the kind of community that Girdwood wants,” she said.
This story has been updated to clarify when Title 21 was passed and Mike Edgington’s concerns about short-term rental regulation. It also fixed a capitalization error in Kim VanSickle’s name.