Leaders in Huslia aim to convince residents to stay with affordable housing

These five houses in the village of Huslia were built using grant funding and distributed to residents to reduce crowding in multi-generational homes. (Rachel Cassandra/ Alaska Public Media)
Emily Penn just moved into a new, four-bedroom house with her boyfriend and her two toddlers. They live in the Interior village of Huslia.

“There’s so much more room,” said Penn. 

Before this, Penn said she and 11 family members were crammed into a three-bedroom house. She said she loved living with family but it was crowded. Now, her kids are taking advantage of the new space.

“They love it,” said Penn. “They can run around everywhere. And they have their own rooms and a playroom.” 

The lack of affordable housing is a crisis across Alaska. It’s one of the reasons the state is losing working-age people every year. But building new housing is more challenging in rural areas, where costs are almost always higher and it’s difficult to transport supplies. And in rural villages, even losing one family is difficult. If someone has to leave Huslia, they’re leaving family, a tight-knit community, ties to Athabascan culture and closeness to nature. So in Huslia, leaders are using grant funding and other creative solutions to keep families. 

Carl Burgett is the first chief of the Huslia tribe. He said he wants to make sure all 360 people who live in the village stay. 

“If you have a loss here, it’s not one family that suffers,” he said. “We all suffer, because that one person is connected to everybody.”

Huslia is on the north bank of the Koyukuk River, a tributary of the Yukon. The village is concerned about erosion, so Penn’s new home is far from the bank. It’s in a row of five identical houses, with beige siding and blue roofs, along a sandy road. They were funded by a federal COVID relief grant. Residents pay utility bills but no mortgage payments. The aim is to reduce the number of families living with multiple generations under one roof. And with that same funding, the village repaired 10 crumbling roofs to extend the life of existing homes. 
This house in the village of Huslia was one of 10 that received a new roof through grants. (Rachel Cassandra / Alaska Public Media)

Chief Burgett said Huslia needs to keep building to allow the community to expand. 

“To have a thriving community, you actually have to have projects year after year, or else you’ll have out-migration,” said Burgett. “So, (for) a community of my size, we have to have anywhere from $2 to $3 million of work annually.”

He said knows jobs are part of that equation too. So, he said, he’s worked hard to keep the labor local. He said the five houses were built with 100% local labor. 

“When you do have projects, you can’t hire everybody,” said Burgett. “So, like us, we kind of look at trying to hire one from each family. So, each family benefits from not only somebody getting a house in the community, but actually benefits from one of your family members earning wages.”

New houses don’t become available often and the demand far outstrips supply. The tribe got about 60 applications for the blue-roofed houses. 

But for many years, leaders in Huslia have kept costs low for people who want to build their own home. Residents can apply for a free piece of village land. 

“They make a request for the lot,” said Burgett. “And they have five years to construct a home but we do not charge for the acre of land or whatever lot is turned over.”

Burgett said for now, he’s grateful that in the past few years, 15 families have gotten new or repaired housing. He’s not sure how funding will come together in the future. But he does know that people in Huslia stay for a reason. The sense of community is strong. And people live a subsistence lifestyle he said would be hard to find in other places. 

“In my mind, we’re kind of going against the grain,” he said. “They’re not going to drive us out of the woods. We’re gonna stay here. This is our roots…. It’s a really beautiful community.” 

Chief Burgett has one more year in his term and he hopes to see five to seven more homes finished before then. 

RELATED: Alaska faces unique housing challenges, as feds send millions of dollars to help, top HUD official says

Rachel Cassandra covers health and wellness for Alaska Public Media. Reach her atrcassandra@alaskapublic.org. Read more about Rachel here.

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