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Apr. 17—A community debate is playing out over a proposed change to Anchorage's land use code that could transform where homeless shelters can be located in the city.
City leaders want to change Anchorage's code to allow new homeless shelters in areas zoned as "B-3" business districts, rather than just in scarce "public lands and institutions" zoning districts — currently the only place shelters can exist.
The proposal is still in the drafting process and will likely not even be considered by the Anchorage Assembly until June, according to Chair Felix Rivera. A companion ordinance that would create a licensing framework for shelters is also in the works.
But in recent weeks, resolutions against — and in support of — the change have been introduced in community councils across the city, spurring heated conversations.
The debate over where shelters should be allowed gets to the heart of vexing questions about how the city should house its burgeoning homeless population. It's a longstanding issue made more pressing by the looming closure of a temporary mass emergency shelter at Sullivan Arena, which currently houses almost 400 people each night.
The fact that the plan is already attracting notice is a sign of just how consequential the issue is, said Paul Berger, the owner of the Carousel Lounge in Spenard.
Last week, Berger introduced a resolution against the proposed change in a Zoom meeting of the Spenard Community Council.
To a screen full of Spenard residents sitting on their couches and at their kitchen tables in the late evening light, he explained that he was worried the change could pave the way for a new shelter in Spenard.
"I'm very concerned about petty crime, disturbances, trespassing, which I believe would increase," Berger told the group.
One neighbor chimed in to say that he found the idea that the neighborhood might be overtaken by outsiders offensive.
"These are our housing insecure neighbors," he said.
Moreover, "they are not being pushed out of downtown to here," said the neighbor. "They are already here. They are camping in my neighborhood, all of the time."
Others raised questions about neighborhood equity — would it be fair to dump problems on one area? Another chimed in that she thought drug treatment, not shelters, should be a priority.
"I was kind of surprised with how emotional people were getting," Berger said a week later in an interview.
The conversation stayed civil and away from personal attacks, said Lindsey Hajduk, president of the Spenard Community Council.
Title 21: What's proposed
The debate is over a proposed change to Anchorage's governing land use code, Title 21.
Currently, under city code, homeless shelters are limited to designated "public lands and institutions" districts. Most of that land is already developed, or dedicated parkland unsuitable for housing, such as the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge.
To add shelter beds, entities would need to pursue a lengthy and cumbersome process to rezone land and then apply for a conditional use permit, said Francis McLaughlin, a city planner.
The city wants to change Title 21 to allow homeless shelters to be located in areas zoned as "B-3" business districts, which are mostly along major roadways. Those locations have more land available, are likely to be close to transit and other services and are not in residential areas, McLaughlin said.
In Anchorage, "B-3" zoned areas are grouped around the Northern Lights and Benson Boulevard corridor in Midtown Anchorage, as well as the Seward Highway corridor to the south.
Historically, homeless shelters have been clustered downtown and in Ship Creek. Changing the rules "would give the community more flexibility on where to place new homeless shelters," according to the municipal planning department.
Even under the change, any proposed new shelters would still have to apply for a conditional use permit, the highest level of review, McLaughlin said.
Homeless shelters would also have to:
—Be more than 500 feet from other homeless and transient shelters.
—Be within a quarter mile of a public transit route.
—Have onsite storage for personal belongings, according to the proposal.
Without a change, it's unlikely that a site for more shelter beds will be built.
"It is nearly impossible to site any new shelter beds when there's only currently one zoning district that allows shelters," McLaughlin said.
A decentralized approach, but how?
Anchorage nonprofits that serve people experiencing homelessness have said that new sheltering options are needed in order to shut down what's supposed to be a temporary emergency shelter operating out of Sullivan Arena since the beginning of the pandemic.
That presents a challenge: As of April 6, the mass shelter was almost at capacity, according to a presentation from Emergency Operations Center leaders, with 394 of 400 beds taken. The city has also been paying to house hundreds of other people, mostly elderly or with medical issues, at hotels around town.
Where will all those people go when the emergency shelter — and the federal pandemic-related funding to pay for it — are gone?
That's the question that needs to be answered, said Lisa Sauder, the executive director of Bean's Cafe, in an interview in February. Before Sullivan Arena closes, a new shelter system must be in place or the city will have a "humanitarian crisis" on its hands, Sauder said.
Bean's Cafe has been operating the Sullivan shelter, and Sauder has said Bean's would be likely to pursue operating a new shelter of some kind.
One thing is clear: The old way of sheltering homeless individuals is gone for good. Brother Francis Shelter housed 240 or more people before the pandemic. Now, it has a maximum of about 64 residents, mostly for medical respite care. There's no plan to go back to sheltering hundreds of people in the industrial district of Ship Creek.
"We will never have another Brother Francis type situation," Rivera said. "That can be in the history books and we never have to turn back to that again."
The new approach leans on decentralization: Smaller shelters in areas where people already are spending their time.
The city says it wants to use a mix of shelter types to house people post-Sullivan Arena, including "congregate, non‐congregate, private shelters, community housing, treatment programs, care homes and skilled nursing facilities." All of those scenarios rely on Anchorage adding shelter beds. But where?
Proponents of changing the rules say the zoning limitations have kept Anchorage from adding needed shelter beds.
The city planning department has been meeting with community councils and other groups to present the idea since last November, McLaughlin said. In March, the municipal Planning and Zoning Commission voted yes on the change. The next stop will be the Anchorage Assembly, which is expected to hold public hearings on the issue as early as May or June.
In the meantime, a coalition of activists led by Anchorage anesthesiologist Russell Biggs has been introducing resolutions against the proposed change to community councils from Tudor Road to Spenard.
In an email, Biggs said he has gathered more than 750 resident comments against the proposal and charged that the city hadn't done enough to notify residents.
"This resolution bypasses the traditional and historically utilized means available to rezone properties for shelter use and will result in less public engagement and less property owner protection for the most restricted land use in the community," he wrote.
The city says it has followed all standard notification procedures and that any new shelters would still have to follow the conditional use permit process, the most intense level of scrutiny for new development.
'So when we consider it, it doesn't explode'
The change to Title 21 was originally part of a suite of attempts to tackle Anchorage's homelessness issues considered by the Anchorage Assembly last summer. It was paired with an ordinance that would have allowed the administration of then-Mayor Ethan Berkowitz to purchase several properties to turn into shelters and a treatment center.
That time, the proposed change skipped over parts of the process, with the justification that an emergency was unfolding.
"It didn't go through the planning and zoning process," Rivera said. "It went straight to the Assembly."
That didn't go well.
"We heard tremendous opposition from the public," Rivera said.
Ultimately, the city moved forward with plan to buy the Best Western Golden Lion Hotel in Midtown, where a future drug and alcohol treatment center will be located. The city abandoned a plan to buy a former Alaska Club on Tudor Road in Midtown for use as a day engagement center, and also scrapped plans to house homeless services in a hotel property on Spenard Road.
People were particularly upset about the planning and zoning commission process being skipped, he said. This time, the potential change to Title 21 went through the usual process, which included public outreach and presentations to community councils.
Soon, a draft of an ordinance that would create a licensing framework for potential shelters will also be unveiled, said Christopher Constant, one of the Anchorage Assembly members working on the project along with Meg Zaletel and John Weddleton. That will be a key piece of how the future of shelters in Anchorage might look, because it would create more opportunities for regulating shelters' performance and responsibilities to the neighborhoods they end up in, Constant said.
"I wouldn't support (the Title 21 change) if we weren't doing the licensing piece," he said. "That would just be re-creating that which we've already seen didn't work that well."
The two elements "have to be companion, and they have to be credible," he said.
Berger, the Carousel Lounge owner who brought the issue up with the Spenard Community Council, said he's OK with the fact that his business neighbors voted against his resolution. He just wanted to get people to pay attention, he said.
"I think it kind of woke people up," he said.
Rivera hopes the lead-up will lay the groundwork for a different kind of debate. Nobody wants a repeat of last summer, he said.
"If anything this controversial comes up, we need to make sure we are ready for it," he said.
"So when we consider it, it doesn't explode, the way that particular one did."