The ink is dry on the purchase of an old Anchorage hotel that’s been converted into a workforce housing complex. With more than 130 rooms available, the aim of the Guest House building in downtown is to help homeless people transition into more permanent housing.
The Guest House purchase is part of a large, multi-tiered approach to addressing homelessness and housing shortages in Anchorage. The plan was put forward through a partnership between public and private entities, as well as Mayor Dave Bronson’s administration and the Assembly. While the facilitated negotiation process fell through in June, parts of the plan are coming together. They include the Sockeye Inn, which has been converted into a complex care homeless shelter, as well as the East Anchorage navigation center and shelter.
The Guest House was bought for $7.8 million by First Presbyterian Church LLC. Part of the funds came from the Assembly, which approved a grant of $3.4 million, and the rest coming from private partners, largely the Rasmuson Foundation. Rev. Matt Schultz of First Presbyterian says though the nonprofit is related to the church, the church operates separately and isn’t receiving any of that money.
“The funds come from elsewhere, and they go elsewhere,” Schultz said. “And eventually, somewhere down the road, we will hand off the leadership of this project to another entity. At that point, we will have made a profit of zero dollars.”
First Presbyterian owns the building, but day-to-day operations are handled by MASH LLC, a homeless services provider headed by former U.S. Senator Mark Begich.
All of the residents have recently been homeless and either have a job, or are in the process of getting employed. Unlike homeless shelters, Schultz says the Guest House is a housing complex, operating just like a typical renter-landlord system.
“Each resident gets a room, they pay rent,” Schultz said. “They have that ownership, they know it’s theirs. They can lock the door, go to work in the morning, come home to their safe and cared-for possessions and home.”
The Guest House operates differently than some housing and sheltering options in that it’s low-barrier. Schultz says that means tenants don’t need to meet certain requirements, like being sober for example, in order to get housing.
“The lowered barrier is really in terms of security deposit, which is not really in the picture, and the lower rent,” Schultz said. “So it’s affordable to someone who’s trying to get their feet on the ground under them.”
The affordability is key. For both the chronically homeless, and people finding themselves without a steady home for the first time, the rental market in Anchorage is tough. Rent is on the rise, and Schultz says that’s had a major impact on homelessness.
“The rental business in any given U.S. city now is difficult to stay in,” Schultz said. “So if you’re having a hard time with your finances, you might find yourself homeless, simply because your lease ended or perhaps the rents increased and so you’re just no longer able to stay where you were.”
Schultz says he’s heard many derogatory comments about the homeless in recent years, often containing blame or indifference. He doesn’t see that as productive, and is reassured by efforts made by the city, Assembly and community partners to stand up projects like the Guest House.
“We have to invert the thought that they can pull themselves up by their bootstraps — go out, get a job, clean themselves up from drugs or trauma or from any number of things that are weighing them down — and then, after all that, they can earn a house because by then, they deserve it,” Schultz said. “It’s got to go the other way. Everybody deserves it.”
The purchase of the Guest House was finalized on Sep. 12, and in the past two weeks, Schultz says everything has been running smoothly as people adjust to their new spaces. He hopes the Guest House serves as an example for how to positively address homelessness.
“My hope here is that people of Anchorage will look at this and say that this is productive, that it’s cost-effective — it saves money for the city in the long run — and most importantly that it’s compassionate,” Schultz said. “It’s just the right thing to do.”
Schultz says many of the tenants of the Guest House have opted for roommates, bringing the total number of people in new housing to approximately 200.
Correction: This story has been corrected to reflect that MASH LLC is not a nonprofit