U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia Fudge was in Anchorage on Thursday to learn from Alaskans about housing issues facing rural and urban parts of the state.
Invited guests to the roundtable included Native corporation and tribal leaders, plus state and local government officials. The roundtable was closed to the public, but at a news conference afterward, Fudge said she appreciated participants’ willingness to share their challenges.
“It’s always the squeaky wheel, so today I got the squeaky wheel in a very loud way,” Fudge said.
U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan, who accompanied Fudge on her visit, underscored that Alaska is different from much of the country. Rural communities here, many of them off the road system, have drastically higher costs of living.
“Most of America, as you go further out from the big cities, a lot of times housing and the cost of living actually decrease,” he said. “In Alaska, it’s actually the flip side.”
Fudge also visited Kenai on her trip to Alaska, where she announced millions of dollars for several tribal affordable housing projects across the state.
Meanwhile, concerns raised by urban Alaskans included what they describe as an unfair formula for distribution of HUD funding to address homelessness. Anchorage Assembly Chair Chris Constant said that the city of Houston, Texas, and Anchorage both have roughly the same number of homeless people — at around 3,200. However, he said, Houston receives more than $40 million in federal support, while Anchorage gets roughly $4 million.
“That’s $15,000 per individual in Houston that they’re receiving to support the people unhoused in their community, where we receive $1,000,” Constant said.
Fudge said she heard a “good argument” from Alaskans in favor of adjusting the HUD funding formula to be more equitable.
Affordable housing remains an issue in urban Alaska as well.
In Anchorage, the pandemic slowed the building of new homes. That’s led to a smaller housing market, driving up home prices and rent for many. Currently, there’s a proposal from the Assembly to change residential zoning rules in an effort to allow for more housing.
Fudge said her department is looking into easing zoning and planning regulations nationwide to help add more homes. She said HUD also has billions of dollars set aside to help communities enact new ideas to increase housing.
“We’re saying to communities: If you really want to make a difference, and you really want to make some changes, we’re willing to help you fund these processes to fund the data collection, to fund the new ideas that we think can be helpful,” Fudge said.
Constant said the Assembly has authorized Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson to apply for federal funding to help implement residential zoning changes.
Fudge is the latest in a whirlwind of federal officials visiting Alaska in August, including Attorney General Merrick Garland and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. President Joe Biden will visit Anchorage’s Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson on Sept. 11 to attend a memorial on the 22nd anniversary of the 2001 terrorist attacks.