Petersburg has a new fourth-grade teacher this fall — Sharon Paulson. She moved to the Southeast Alaska town this summer. The floor of her home is strewn with musical instruments played proudly by her son, 5-year-old Glenn. Maracas, ukuleles and tambourines. In the middle of the room, he was playing a steel drum marked with the first seven letters of the alphabet.
Finding that home was not easy. She started house hunting soon after signing her work contract in March.
“I looked on Zillow, which was laughable,” said Paulson. “Someone said, ‘Check on Facebook,’ and I saw that there really wasn’t very much there. I looked with the realtor companies, both of them. I had my administrators putting the word out for people. We had a list of AirBnBs to ask if maybe they would rent to us.”
After nearly two months of searching, Paulson spotted a classified ad in the local paper.
“That was the last hope that I had for being able to find housing,” said Paulson. “It really was like, if we can’t find housing, we can’t make this move. So when we finally did find a house and our offer was accepted, like I could visibly see the stress fall off of my husband’s face.”
Stories like hers are common around Petersburg. So last fall, the Borough Assembly set up a housing task force. Assembly Member Dave Kensinger chairs the task force.
“I think we need to figure out a way to start building more housing,” said Kensinger. “It’s pretty simple. If we don’t deal with it, we won’t have as many people in town.”
Kessinger said that’s the easy bit. The hard part? What type of housing. To answer that question, the task force launched a community housing needs survey. It ran for a month in the summer, and it was all overseen by Anchorage-based Agnew Beck Consulting. Now, the results are in. Katie Scovic is the senior manager at Agnew Beck.
“We had 366 responses to the Community Housing Survey in Petersburg, which is awesome,” said Scovic. “That’s about 10% of the population and a really great rate for this kind of survey.”
The survey was 10 pages long with 39 questions, but here some of the headline results: a quarter of respondents aren’t happy with their housing, and most of those who aren’t happy are under 45 years old, working and still renting. Most of them want to move into family homes, but apartments and duplexes are popular too. And 80% of all respondents want to see more land with utilities opened up for housing.
The survey shows that a lack of skilled labor and the cost of repair is holding people back from renovating their homes. However, Scovic said that even those who don’t fall under any of those categories still care about this issue.
“The majority of Petersburg residents are satisfied with their own housing,” said Scovic. “But also the majority of residents say that housing is a community issue. And so to see both of those things, at the same time, is encouraging.”
The team at Agnew Beck has been sifting through all that data to calculate what housing it thinks Petersburg needs.
“So according to our housing-need forecasts over the next 10 years, there’s a need for roughly 316 housing units in Petersburg,” said Scovic. “We’re really looking at about six new units a year and 18 rehab or renovation units each year for the next 10 years.”
Once the consultants submit their final report at the end of September, Kensinger said, there’s no time to waste.
“The time to (have) done something was 10 years ago,” said Kensinger. “And if we want to keep a vibrant community and we just don’t want a community of a bunch of retirees, we need to address the housing problem now — not next year.”
But that’s easier said than done, between land, labor and logistics. And many folks in Petersburg will have big concerns that need to be addressed first. Back at the Paulson family’s home, Sharon has shifted her focus to a different challenge altogether — the first day of school. Perhaps she can whip up a quick housing plan while she’s at it.