Tens of thousands of Alaskan tenants have gotten help with rent during the pandemic. But that federal COVID rental assistance is set to expire in early summer. As KHNS’ Corinne Smith reports, the $225 million in funding has helped tenants through tough times, and with the relief funding ending, many are still facing housing cost and availability issues.
Emma Brouillette, an 18-year-old Haines resident, has moved three times in the past year since graduating from Haines High School.
“It’s really scary,” she said. “So my rent is $1,000 a month. I get about $450 every week for my paycheck. So I can’t really save anything.
Brouillette currently works in the kitchen of a heliski tour company and pays for a studio apartment in town, plus utilities and food — and she says that’s overkill. She has supported herself for sixteen years. She says it has been difficult to find an entry level job with her qualifications that pays a living wage.
“Between COVID and the fact that we don’t have tourism, so many businesses are closed, there aren’t too many jobs around, it can offer some kind of great progression,” Brouillette said. “So I did my best to look for jobs that could provide me. And with COVID, so many people have the same fight. So people stay in their apartments, where it’s safe.
Last fall, Brouillette was working at a local pizzeria and struggling to manage, when she saw an ad and asked for COVID rental assistance.
“I found it to be incredibly helpful,” she said. “Because it helped me with my mental state with my stress, it was seen as one less thing to do and allowed me to work on myself.”
Brouillette says thankfully she was able to take that time off and focus on her health. But she could not save during this time. Now, with the end of federal funding, she’s looking for both a better-paying job and a more affordable place, ideally splitting the costs with a roommate. But it’s also hard to save for a down payment for a new home, while still covering bills.
“So I have a job and I’m able to pay for things, but I’m not able to imagine a better job, at least in the immediate future,” she said. “So like with the end of my lease, if I want to try to find a new place, I have to find another source of income. So I’m able to pay that first month’s rent and that down payment (deposit ) to be able to move.
Joe Aultman-Moore, 31, faces similar housing issues. He was moved from his home during the deadly Beach Road landslide in 2020. His cabin was deemed too risky to return to.
“When it was made unlivable after the landslide, I basically had to move somewhere in town,” he said. “I had to scramble to find a place in the middle of winter.”
He found emergency housing after the disaster, then rented a studio apartment in Fort Seward for $850 a month. As a former tour guide, with no summer tours during the pandemic, he qualified for COVID rental assistance.
“It has made city life possible throughout the ongoing pandemic,” Aultman-Moore said. “But once that’s over, I’m basically going to have to move from there. So, you know, going on, it’s pretty much always up in the air.
Aultman-Moore says he was able to save during this time and is working on building his own little house.
“And so my long-term plan for the future is to build a little house and stop paying the rent. Because that’s the only way it makes sense to continue to live here,” he said. “Because, yeah, like rents going up and seasonal workers coming in and the constantly changing rental situation here. It’s just, it’s unmanageable.
A total of 100 Haines households have benefited from federal COVID aid distributed by the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation. Housing Corporation spokeswoman Stacey Barnes said a third of all tenants in the state applied and more than 66,000 Alaskans benefited.
“The idea that an individual or a family wondered where they could sleep the next night or the next month because they lost hours associated with their work, maybe they lost their job completely,” Barnes said. “Or maybe they had to deal with a family member who came into close contact with someone else who had COVID. Or maybe they had COVID themselves. And so knowing that financial aid was on the way was something that had a huge impact.
The program paid any unpaid rent and then made direct rent payments to landlords in three-month installments. In the borough of Haines alone, this totaled more than $660,000 in assistance. There have been two rounds of funding over the past year and they are now due to wrap up in early summer.
“As our country now emerges from the COVID pandemic, these individuals are able to return to full employment and make the decisions that are in the best interests of their families without having completely drawn down their savings without having accrued enormous credit cards debt. And maintaining the security of their homes,” Barnes said.
Although housing assistance has brought some relief, tenants still face major difficulties in being able to afford housing.
Heather Parker is an attorney at Alaska Legal Services based in Juneau. She says they are seeing an increase in evictions in Southeast Alaska in recent months as tenants face the end of federal housing assistance.
“So even though these particular COVID housing benefits are sort of coming to an end, I just want people to know that state and federal laws still apply. And those are still obligations that landlords and tenants have under state law,” Parker said.
In particular, Parker asserts that tenants have procedural rights during evictions.
Janine Allen is an attorney with Haines-based Southeast Alaska Independent Living. She says with the end of federal rent assistance, they are working to connect seniors and people with disabilities with extra help like food and fuel. But housing availability continues to be a major challenge, especially for people on fixed incomes.
“The housing situation in Haines seems difficult for almost everyone at the moment, regardless of your income. And then, if you have a disability or if you are an elderly person, it is almost impossible.
Looking ahead, tenants like Joe Aultman-Moore, whose Beach Road cabin has been condemned, say more needs to be done to address housing options and affordability.
“I mean, this idea that, like, if you earn enough to, like, just cover your expenses, then you’re kind of, like, it’s okay, you know, it’s like, No, it just means that you’re on a treadmill. And if something goes wrong, like you trip in the least bit, you’re going to fly off that treadmill, real quick.
So while federal COVID assistance has brought some relief, renters still face rising costs of living, inflation, and lack of housing options, along with great uncertainty.
Alaska Legal Services has a statewide housing hotline for tenants and landlords, call 855-743-1001 Monday through Thursday from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. There are also housing resources at alaskalawhelp.org. Alaska’s 2-1-1 hotline connects residents to a variety of public benefits, including housing assistance.