Making room for everyone

Dozens of people gathered in Mountain View this week to address some of the biggest issues facing Alaskans with disabilities.

At the top of the list: housing.

Jim Beck, executive director at Access Alaska, spoke before the Governor’s Council on Disabilities and Special Education and called Alaska’s current housing situation his biggest peeve.

“We continue to build housing stock in Anchorage that’s funded with public money, that doesn’t have visibility or accessibility,” he said. “We really need to do better.”

Beck was one of several people to testify before the council, which is comprised of more than two dozen advocates from across the state. They gathered in the gym at the Special Olympics Alaska Sports, Health and Wellness Center Wednesday evening for a little more than an hour of public testimony.

Some people asked for help providing resources for deaf Alaskans. One man, confined to a wheelchair, recounted a frustrating encounter with Anchorage police during a traffic stop last month. Beck and another Access Alaska staff member stressed the need for affordable and accessible housing.

“If we have a laundry room downstairs and a bedroom upstairs, you don’t have to be very old before it wrecks your knees, and if you end up in a wheelchair, you’re definitely not going to live there anymore,” Beck said.

The problem was getting so bad, Beck said he was no longer writing letters of support for various public housing projects because many of them aren’t suitable for elderly or disabled residents. People shouldn’t have to move just because they “accidentally got old,” he said.

As Anchorage community leaders find ways to fight the city’s housing crisis, Beck asked the council to stress the importance of both accessibility and affordability.

Just a few yards away from the gym where the council took public testimony Wednesday, a coalition of developers recently broke ground at a new, 70-unit affordable housing complex dubbed Ridgeline Terrace. Bryan Butcher, executive director at the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation, said making the project a reality took years of work and cooperation between numerous agencies.

Butcher said a variety of different factors make it hard for affordable housing projects pencil out without creative financing and broad-based community support.

But Anchorage is home to a rapidly aging population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and Beck said developers should plan ahead.

“In new housing, it’s really just a tiny percentage that it would add to the cost to make things more accessible,” he said.

Beck asked the governor’s council to prioritize accessibility at the state level. With many of Access Alaska’s clients living in northeast Anchorage, he said affordable and accessible housing is especially important in neighborhoods like Mountain View, Fairview and Muldoon.

“It’s just such a mixed bag, especially in a town like Anchorage, where housing is eclectic at best,” he said. “You have an ancient old log house next to a brand new modern structure, and really a huge variance in accessibility between the two.”


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