Point of View: Homer shows that housing solutions are a priority

The causes of the housing shortage in our area are not singular and neither are the solutions.

On March 25, almost 100 Homer-area residents gathered to share insights, experiences and observations of the housing issues that our community currently faces. Signage informed participants about the statistics available regarding the lack of houses and property for sale as well as valuable information about what it means for housing to be affordable. Participants came from a wide variety of backgrounds and perspectives. People who work in social services networks, realtors, business owners, land and homeowners.

Having worked for the last 10 years to help residents who are struggling to find housing they can afford, it was, for me, cathartic to have a room full of people talking about the issues I see all the time. Displays presented information on what it means for housing to be affordable and a comparison of income levels in the community. Lenders, housing authorities and other experts recognize that to have funds accessible to sustain a healthy financial life, a household shouldn’t be paying more than 30% of their income toward rent.

Regardless of affordability levels, we see both renters and buyers alike paying far more than they could afford based on those standards because there is such a shortage of options available. Landlords talk about having heartbreakingly long lists of hopeful candidates. Some homebuyers talked about buying their house sight unseen, the moment it hit the market.

One attendee spoke openly of their struggles in finding any options for housing once they had to leave their rental so that it could be rented as a short-term rental like Airbnb. Sadly, their experience is far from unique. A significant number of year-round residents and families find themselves without stable housing for at least three months of the year.

The topic of Airbnbs was a common theme of discussions around the room. Some insisted that there shouldn’t be any restrictions on short-term rentals and felt that the market would balance out over time. Many others, however, spoke to the way in which the lack of restraints on short-term rentals is harming the community as a whole.

Homer is not unique in facing this dilemma. There are a number of communities around the country that have begun work to ensure that the employees the community needs to keep businesses staffed and functioning have access to affordable housing.

Homer has had a bounty of short-term rentals for decades. Many people I know personally have, for a long time, downsized their family’s living space to be able to rent their home to visitors in the summer. Some rent their guesthouse/spare room or have a small collection of cabins that aren’t suited to winter living. A lot of Airbnbs are now owned by people who don’t reside in Homer and some host multiple houses. I decided that this was worth looking into more deeply.

I just did a few searches on Airbnb to get a rough idea of some numbers. I searched for an Airbnb available at any time in the greater Homer area and found over 580 Airbnbs in the greater Homer area (Ninilchik and the communities south of there). Here are some other statistics I found substantial:

373 units were available in the greater Homer area in the first week of November 2023. That implies that 64% of the Airbnbs remain short-term rentals for the entire year.

122 two-bedroom or more houses (specified as full houses) that a visitor could choose to rent in downtown Homer in November. These, then, are houses not available for residents to rent or buy at a livable rate.

About 36% of these 580 units are not short-term rentals year -round. Some become six- to nine-month rentals and some are reabsorbed by the owners who displaced themselves for the summer.

There were lots of potential solutions discussed at the housing event on March 25. Some brainstormed ideas for emergency housing, transitional housing and supportive housing. Ideas about building more multi-family dwellings were discussed and statistics from the City of Homer show that the number of multifamily units being built has been very low in the past several years. Graphs can be found on the City of Homer’s website showing this statistic and others that were discussed that Saturday.

What really excited me about this event was that there are so many people in our community ready to work on creating solutions. Solutions mentioned varied from short term and immediate to large scale. Some of the solutions that people had begun processing include the following:

Property owners offering camping sites for RVs or campers

Tiny homes or yurt clusters

Hostels and bunkhouses

Seasonal housing for summer employees/residents

Co-housing and host homes

Shelter or transitional housing

Senior housing, assisted living and nursing homes

Multifamily housing (apartments/duplexes/triplexes)

Advocating for and supporting regulation of short-term rentals in city limits

Supporting landlords and incentivizing long-term rentals

Looking at city codes and borough land use

The causes of the housing shortage in our area are not singular and neither are the solutions. We have a multitude of ways in which we can all help make our community more sustainable. Doing so will help improve the wellness of individuals, our infrastructure and the economy as a whole. I look forward to continuing this discussion with you all.

I love Homer and I am so glad to be part of a community where we work together to create solutions.

Jane Dunn works with Choosing Our Roots of the Kenai Peninsula, helping safely house queer youth, and has worked to support unhoused youth and families in the Homer area since 2013.