Covid funding helps build homes in overcrowded Bering Straits communities

One of several older homes that have been run down by frequent winter storms and many years without maintenance in Savoonga. Photo taken by Emily Hofstaedter, KNOM (2018).

The COVID-19 pandemic has made it difficult to build homes in Western Alaska. But it’s also provided opportunities for more funding to alleviate some housing issues that exist in the region.

More than a third of residents in the Bering Strait region are living in overcrowded conditions according to the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation.

The former CEO of Bering Straits Regional Housing Authority, Chris Kolerok, gave public testimony on housing conditions in the region three years ago. Kolerok spoke during an Indian Affairs Senate Hearing held in Savoonga, the first of its kind hosted in Western Alaska.

“In the Bering Straits outside of Nome, the overcrowding rate is 37% — 19% of that are homes being classified as severely overcrowded,” he said in 2018. “And during community meetings, we have been confronted with the heartbreaking stories of 21 people sharing a small three-bedroom home.”

That same year, Savoonga received six new houses. Since then, there have been no new homes built in the community. Prior to the completion of those six new homes, Savoonga hadn’t seen new houses built locally in over 10 years.

Those rates are based on the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation’s latest housing assessment from 2018.

Jolene Lyon inherited these challenges as she took over as president and CEO of Bering Straits Regional housing authority in 2020. Although the housing authority has traditionally served tribal members of the Bering Strait by building houses, during the pandemic they were able to offer other assistance.

“Some communities chose to buy side-by-sides or ATVs,” Lyon said. “Others chose to get washers and dryers, some wanted more PPE, some wanted freezers because at the same time there was a concern that there would be meat shortages.”

Each community gets a certain amount of funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development based on the population of the tribe. The housing authority then pools all the allocated money together which comes to between $1.4 million to $1.8 million each year for the entire Bering Strait region.

Staffing turnover, logistical issues and the wrench thrown into the plan by COVID-19 all delayed the construction of new homes that were slated for this year. Lyon says the upside of waiting though, is that the housing authority received additional funds from COVID-related grants and can afford to build more homes in 2022.

She had money left over from the regular allotment from the federal government and decided to stretch that with approval from the housing authority’s board of directors.

“I presented a revised Indian Housing plan to take that remaining funding and apply it towards new construction for Shaktoolik. So now we have two homes we can build. Thus comes along, we get the American Rescue Plan [funding], and I can take another $1.5 million from that and now I’m building four homes in Shaktoolik instead of the one we were actually going to do,” she said.

Shaktoolik, Diomede and Wales are all set to receive new homes in 2022. On top of that, King Island tribal members received two new modular homes constructed in Nome last year.

But a couple of single-family homes every 10 years or so is not enough to tackle the issue of overcrowding which is at 14% in Nome, and 37% in the Bering Strait region, according to the latest numbers from AHFC.

Sophia Katchatag, tribal coordinator for the Native Village of Shaktoolik,  says four new homes next year will only make a small dent in a sizable issue for her community.

“It’s a blessing to know we are getting four new homes this coming summer, but there’s still a need out there. There’s still multiple families living in homes,” she said.

According to Katchatag, the last time Shaktoolik had new homes built in the community was from 2005 to 2006.

Going forward into 2022, Lyon says the housing authority will focus on building more homes across the region, with some extra funding courtesy of the American Rescue Plan Act.

“We can build stick-build [houses]. We can build sit-paneled homes, with those big, large panels. We can do modular or if they’re small, we can do tiny homes, we can have those shipped in,” she said.

Each option comes with its own set of pros and cons. Some cost more to ship than others but some are more suitable for the Arctic conditions that exist in Western Alaska.

According to Lyon, the housing authority could build up to a total of 10 new homes next year for three different communities instead of the usual three new homes.

And in early December, the federal housing and urban development department announced an additional $52 million in Indian Community Block Grants. Some of those funds will pay for a temporary shelter in Solomon, five tiny homes in Aniak and water holding tanks for Wales.

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Davis Hovey is a news reporter at KNOM - Nome. Hovey was born and raised in Virginia. He spent most of his childhood in Greene County 20 minutes outside of Charlottesville where University of Virginia is located. Hovis was drawn in by the opportunity to work for a radio station in a remote, unique place like Nome Alaska. Hovis went to Syracuse University, where he graduated with a Bachelor’s of Science in Broadcast Digital Journalism.