In Alaska, Community Action works to create affordable housing for residents

By Rae Tamblyn

May is Community Action Month! Over 1,000 Community Action Agencies (CAAs) work to strategically target the root causes of poverty at the local level and to impact health and economic security on a national scale. Using the Community Services Block Grant (CSBG) as a core funding component to leverage private, local, state and federal funding, the CSBG Network has the flexibility to assess and meet the needs of communities across the United States, and to improve the lives of those living in poverty. Our ability to tell the stories of the innovative and responsive ways our programs and services have changed clients’ lives and our ability to quantify how we serve low-income communities across the nation sets us apart. In celebration of National Community Action Month, NASCSP will be showcasing the impact of CAAs and what it means to #BeCommunityAction by telling the stories of successful community action efforts throughout the month.

Since CAAs serve local needs, each agency meets the needs of their communities and low-income families differently. In Alaska, like many other states, rising housing prices are placing a massive strain on low-income families. With a high cost of living, and wages falling short of meeting housing costs, low-income people are being squeezed out of rental opportunities as median income families seek cheaper housing options and consume the majority of affordable housing stock available. An average rent for someone living in the area can be between $900 and $1100 per month. According the National Low Income Housing Coalition housing wage calculator, a person would have to make at least $19.62 per hour, or $40,800 a year, to spend no more than 30% of their income on a one bedroom rental unit in Anchorage. A minimum wage employee earning $7.75 would need to work 101 hours per week to afford a median cost rental unit. In April 2013, the Municipality of Anchorage reported that over 1,500 people were on the waitlist for Housing Choice Vouchers, and over 3,000 people were on the waitlist for other various rental assistance units.

Rural Alaska Community Action Program, Inc. (RurAL CAP) determined that whether derived from national statistics or local housing program waitlists, there was a need for more affordable housing in Anchorage—and that the need far exceeds what is available. With a significantly low vacancy rate and a high cost of living, the city is home to many people needing just that – a home. Responding to their community’s need for affordable housing, RurAL CAP created the Safe Harbor program. Safe Harbor provides secure and dignified housing for very low-income homeless families and individuals.

In 2014, RurAL CAP purchased Safe Harbor Inn, an Inn which was previously owned and operated by Anchor Arms, Inc. Community Action staff developed educational and outreach material and social media activity to increase public and policymakers’ awareness of, and support for, the project. Boasting streamlined systems, dedicated staff, strong relationships with partner local and statewide agencies for additional services and funding, and a variety of programs ranging from crisis intervention to case management, the facility now serves as a hub for multiple services and helps families strengthen their ability to live independently. The agency has been remodeling 55 housing units and will continue to work on the operation, rehabilitation and service delivery system for Safe Harbor Inn. RurAL CAP has also made substantial progress refurbishing the 50 units of transitional housing at a second location, Safe Harbor-Muldoon. These housing units are focused on providing Alaskan residents who are low-income, homeless or living with disabilities with safe, healthy, and dignified housing that increases the overall wellness of residents and adds to the neighborhood.

Safe Harbor rents are set at $550 for the regular sized rooms (up to four people) and $580 for a larger room (up to 5 people).  Families are also able to receive rental assistance during the first phase of Family Critical Time Intervention (1-3 months), particularly since most families have minimal income on entry into housing because they are stretched thin from previous high housing cost.  In the first three months, families will pay 30% of their adjusted gross income.  Starting in month 4, families pay the full rent.  This allows a family who may have income to save for permanent housing deposits and participate in a full spectrum of services offered.  Additional programs run by the CAA like TANF enable families to access 3 months of emergency rental assistance for all units. Lowering rental cost by 50% allows housing cost to get closer to a livable amount and creates an opportunity for families to make progress toward self-sufficiency. RurAL CAP evaluates outcomes related to each families’ active participate in the program, prevention of reoccurring homelessness, increase in wellness by focusing on housing barriers, engagement in Family Therapy for those who have children over the age of 10, parental training to reestablish adult authority while reclaiming a loving relationship, and safety from trauma and substance abuse. Additionally, RurAL CAP measures the number of families who move on to permanent housing within 9 months, decrease their number of days of poor mental health, and increase their self-sufficiency, income and employment by program exit. The identification of outcomes will support Safe Harbor in measuring its impact on the community.

Programs like Safe Harbor are an enduring benefit to the local community, namely in their ability to build and foster local partnerships in order to provide services that improve the living conditions for low income people. The creation of safe, supportive, and affordable housing that speak to both a local need for affordable housing and a human need for safe, secure, and dignified housing in a positive and caring community exemplifies what it means to #BeCommunityAction!