Debate intensifies over proposed Anchorage zoning overhaul

Mar. 22—The debate over an Anchorage Assembly proposal to dramatically overhaul zoning across the city is intensifying.

The sponsors of the proposal, Assembly members Anna Brawley, Daniel Volland and Meg Zaletel, say the city must act quickly to resolve an extreme housing shortfall that contributes to soaring rent and housing prices. They and others have blamed the high prices, in part, for Anchorage's long population slide and labor shortage, as people move elsewhere for cheaper housing.

Critics, including members of some community councils, say they support more housing but they're concerned with the proposal's breadth. They say the measure could lead to increased density, traffic, and street parking in areas of the city that aren't prepared for it, contributing to safety concerns. They say the effort needs more public input.

Their proposal, called HOME or "Housing Opportunities in the Municipality for Everyone," seeks to loosen development requirements in the Anchorage Bowl by shrinking 15 residential zones to five.

The measure would eliminate single-family zoning in Anchorage, excluding Girdwood and Eagle River. Neighborhoods that currently allow only single-family homes would be opened to duplexes, and possibly two houses on single lots that can support it.

A new report from the municipal Planning Department says the effort will be the largest rezoning effort of its kind in Anchorage.

It offered praise for the goal of creating more housing but raised concerns presented by many critics. It suggested a more targeted approach and warned that the proposal is not consistent with Anchorage's long-range planning documents, such as the Anchorage 2040 Land Use Plan.

This week at a public hearing of the Planning and Zoning Commission, the measure's sponsors agreed to take steps to propose change to those long-range planning documents by May 20. The Planning and Zoning Commission is accepting public comment through that date, when it will take up the amendments.

Critics say that won't give the public enough time to weigh in on changes to the long-range plans,

Zaletel said at the meeting the changes need to happen quickly. The biggest failure will be doing nothing, she said.

Soaring prices, little new housing

The shortage of housing is hurting economic opportunities in Anchorage, Volland said in an interview.

"A huge demographic of people want to be able to afford rent, or afford homeownership," he said.

But high prices prevent them from doing so, he said.

Construction of new homes and apartments began to fall before the pandemic. Just 211 housing units were built last year.

That by far is the lowest amount in at least a decade, according to figures from the Anchorage Economic Development Corp.

Nolan Klouda, head of the University of Alaska Center for Economic Development, said, based on trends in other cities, a city of Anchorage's size should be building between 700 and 1,000 new housing units a year.

Klouda said he believes the HOME ordinance is generally going in the right direction. Barriers to homebuilding should be removed, he said.

A sharp drop in municipal permits pulled by developers for residential construction started around 2016, Brawley says in a presentation on the HOME proposal.

That's when the effects of a land-use code rewrite began to emerge, she says.

She points out that the drop in permits predated recent construction issues, such as higher building costs and mortgage rates that jumped after the pandemic.

Brawley says the zoning rules aren't the only factor limiting housing construction. But they're important ones that add costs for developers. It's also something the Assembly can control, she says.

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She said small zoning changes have been made in recent years, but the scale is not enough. "We're getting outpaced by our housing problems," she said in an interview.

The Assembly sponsors say they have launched an extensive outreach effort to notify community councils and others about the proposal. Critics, however, have complained the meetings don't allow enough public feedback.

John Weddleton, who helped finalize the 2040 land use plan in 2017 when he served on the Assembly, said the city and state's long-struggling economy is likely a bigger factor in the drop in homebuilding. The economic troubles have contributed to more than a decade of population losses in Anchorage.

Today's higher building costs have been anticipated for decades, due to the shortage of buildable land in Anchorage, he said. It has often left small vacant lots for development or required costly demolitions and rebuilds, mostly in urban areas.

The idea of Anchorage's long-range land plans is to build up, not out, he said.

He said the Assembly sponsors have launched a worthwhile effort, but they need to engage the public in a broader discussion because the proposed changes are so profound. There should be forums with community input and a two-way conversation, he said.

"Sixty days is way too short," he said of the timeline for amendments to the land plans.

A 'wrecking ball' for neighborhoods?

The HOME proposal was unveiled in August after an earlier measure with broader changes was set aside.

A recent 36-page Planning Department report says HOME would allow "more kinds of uses, smaller lot sizes," taller structures, and reduced setbacks that provide space around structures.

It could add density to lots where one dwelling and an accessory dwelling unit, like a backyard cottage, are already permitted.

Supporters say it would increase opportunities for small businesses like grocery stores or coffee shops to move into neighborhoods. But the Planning report also warns that it could allow commercial developers to crowd out housing in mixed-use and multifamily areas.

The report recommends the zoning changes focus on urban, low-density areas where roads and other services can support more housing. It calls for less focus on areas such as the Hillside with little density and large lots.

The report also suggests a way the plan could take a bolder step.

The Assembly could permit triplexes or fourplexes in some single-family areas where infrastructure could support such changes.

Zaletel said the option to support triplexes and fourplexes should also be explored along with the amendments to the land plan.

She said the sponsors plan to continue pursuing the measure's broad, citywide approach, rather than the smaller, targeted effort recommended by Planning staff.

Volland said the measure as currently designed will already have much more of an impact on urban areas. Meanwhile, it's not a lot to ask that a huge Hillside tract potentially support a duplex instead of just a single-family house, he said.

"Why is it OK to build a 4,000 square-foot single-family McMansion?" on a large lot, he said. "But it's not OK to build a 2,000 square-foot duplex that could house two families or a multi-generational family?"

The HOME proposal comes after the Assembly has passed several other measures to spark homebuilding in the last year and a half.

The changes have included removing off-street parking requirements for new developments, plus loosening rules to allow more construction of triplexes, fourplexes and accessory dwelling units.

The new rules have raised hackles at some community councils concerned about overcrowded streets and neighborhoods, and an overabundance of rental units in single-family areas.

The HOME measure adds to the concerns.

Adam Lees, a member of the University Area Community Council, told the Planning and Zoning Commission at the public hearing that his council overwhelmingly voted to oppose the measure.

The University Area council was concerned in part about a lack of data showing that Anchorage's zoning issues are constraining new housing construction, according to the resolution.

Lees said after the meeting that remains a concern.

"I appreciate the energy the sponsors have put into this," he said. "But I'm concerned that this is a huge issue that needs numbers behind it."

The Rogers Park Community Council near Midtown approved a measure saying it does not support duplexes in the neighborhood's single-family zones, Dave Evans, who lives in the neighborhood, told the commission.

The Rabbit Creek Community Council in South Anchorage also passed a resolution opposing the ordinance and has reached out to other councils to share its concerns.

"I totally understand the assembly trying to get something done quickly," said Ann Rappoport, Rabbit Creek council co-chair. "We have a housing crisis."

But the process needs more public input, among other changes, she said in an interview Tuesday.

"To do such a massive rezone all at once, I find it scary because it seems like we could get anything, anywhere," she said.

She said she's "cautiously optimistic" the proposal can be reduced to focus on targeted changes in areas with the infrastructure to support them such as roads and public transit.

Cheryl Richardson, who lives in the South Addition neighborhood near downtown, is a member of the Anchorage Citizens Coalition, a group that for decades has focused on zoning and other issues affecting Anchorage's quality of life.

The group has called the measure a "wrecking ball" for neighborhoods in statements emailed to media outlets and others.

"We feel like neighborhoods and the 2040 land-use plan are under threat," she said in an interview.

'The time is now'

Graham Downey, the economic justice lead with Alaska Public Interest Research Group, said the group supports the HOME initiative because Anchorage needs much more housing.

He said he also supports the Planning Department idea of potentially allowing triplexes and fourplexes in single-family areas that can support it.

The multiplexes can be attractively built, he said.

"It doesn't make any sense to punish a fourplex relative to a single-family home, when it's a more efficient use of land," he said. "When you allow a bit more density, you can make it a little more viable to get housing built."

Scott Maxwell, a substitute teacher in Anchorage, said he supports the measure.

He was essentially homeless last summer after a living arrangement ended as expected in May.

During his four-month search, rental units leased faster than he could see them, he said. He pieced together house-sitting gigs and couch-surfing stints with friends to keep a roof over his head.

In late August, he found a one-bedroom South Addition near downtown for $1,200 a month. It's pricier and smaller than he wanted, but it was the best he could do, he said.

"That just tells me that there was definitely a demand that outpaced the supply," he said. "And I have a pretty simple situation. I'm single, I have no pets, no major mobility issues, so it should have been pretty easy for me."

"If I'm having this difficult of a time, what about the families with kids, or the single mother who's trying to move into stable housing, or people with pets?" he said.

He said he's concerned that critics of the proposed ordinance want more time to study the issue before solving it.

"I'm sorry, but I can't be too sympathetic to people who say they need more time to think about this when I went through a crisis trying to find housing," he said. "So the time is now to improve the housing situation in Anchorage, and I would welcome any reasonable measure to that end."