A Safe Home is the most basic thing we need to build a healthy society and economy

by Chris Kolerok

Housing is infrastructure, and our Congress needs to fight for it to be included in infrastructure spending. People cannot be successful in school or their jobs, nor can they be physically and mentally healthy, if they are not in a safe home.

In terms of infrastructure, a safe home is the most basic thing we need to build a healthy society and economy. Recognizing this, President Biden released some general ideas for infrastructure spending which includes to “Build, preserve, and retrofit more than two million homes …” This recognizes something we in Alaska have known for years, that housing is infrastructure.

If you watch a new housing development from start to finish you might see gravel pads being laid, roads being built or improved, water and sewer lines installed, and electrical connections extended. This is all infrastructure to support current and future development in the area. More than this physical similarity, as I say above, a safe home is infrastructure. A safe home is the fundamental nexus of a safe and productive life.

Alaska’s housing needs are great and immediate, we have a great many families that need safe housing immediately. Alaska’s homes are overcrowded, inadequate, or dilapidated. Alaska needs over 16,000 housing units to address all of our overcrowded homes.

In the Y-K region, nearly 20% of homes are overcrowded and over 20% of homes are severely overcrowded. Overcrowded homes present challenges for students to study or do homework, or workers to sleep for work in the morning.

Overcrowded homes also mean when one person in a home has substance abuse problems, 8, 10, or 15 other people also experience the ill effects of substance abuse. How do individuals in overcrowded homes quarantine after a COVID exposure without putting their entire family at risk? It is impossible.

Nearly 35% of homes in the Y-K region have incomplete plumbing, which means they lack running water, a tub/shower, or flushing toilet. We know that incomplete plumbing leaves families more susceptible to sickness and it’s harder to wash your hands to prevent spreading infection. We also know incomplete plumbing makes it hard to combat bed bugs, because the dryer is what kills the bugs but without a washer sometimes families don’t have a dryer.

Finally, nearly 50% of homes in the Y-K are drafty or very drafty, meaning families end up spending more of their income on heating fuel. If stove oil is over $4/gallon in Bethel, or over $6/gallon in Aniak, it doesn’t take too many days below 0 for a very drafty house to cost $1000/month.

This is unsustainable and makes preserving and retrofitting essential for our families that have limited incomes. Heating bills that high result in families making a hard choice between food, clothes, boots, or heat.

With housing being considered infrastructure and added to any future legislation, substantial resources can be contributed to addressing overcrowding, lack of water and sewer, and the substandard housing in our communities. Our housing needs are great, and they are immediate.

Chris Kolerok is Director of Government Affairs with Cook Inlet Housing Authority. He is a Calista shareholder and member of the Native Village of Mekoryuk. Previously Chris served as President/CEO of the Bering Straits Regional Housing Authority headquartered in Nome.

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