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CARES Act dollars help Southeast Alaska Tribes tackle affordable housing issues

Aug 12, 2020

As part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, congress appropriated $100 million earlier this year to help tribes cope with housing and sanitation issues during the coronavirus pandemic. The funding will help some Southeast Alaska communities combat existing issues that the pandemic has only made worse.

Finding affordable housing in Southeast Alaska is a challenge even during “normal” times.

“You know there’s such extreme overcrowding, which is our way of dealing with homelessness,” said Jackie Pata, president and CEO of the Tlingit and Haida Regional Housing Authority. They’re the tribally-designated housing entity for 12 Southeast Alaska Tribes.

“People in the villages aren’t really homeless. They just join another family or another home,” Pata said.

But during the pandemic there are extra fears. Fears that the coronavirus could spread quickly in overcrowded, multi-generational households where access to clean water and sanitation can be limited. So, the housing authority worked with all 12 Tribes to apply for a pot of federal Housing and Urban Development money designated by the CARES Act. So far, nine of those Tribes have been awarded funding. Pata said they tried to propose projects that would have a lasting impact.

“So I really feel like we’re on the forefront of trying to be making sure the money is being used in a way that it will have an ongoing benefit rather than just being, you know, a shot in the dark, that’s just for a moment in time,” she said.

Alaska Tribes have been awarded around a third of what’s been dispersed so far.

This is just one piece of the funding puzzle for tribes to address the impacts of the pandemic, but it’s an important one, said Alaska HUD Director Colleen Bickford.

“You know it’s gonna hopefully improve the overall health and healthy homes across the state,” she said.

Bickford said the money is for projects that address immediate threats to the health and safety of tribal citizens caused by the pandemic. That could include everything from building new apartments to creating quarantine space to fixing community water lines.

And although infrastructure projects can take time, the money is being distributed as part of an existing program called the Indian Community Development Block Grant Imminent Threat Program. Bickford said she’s confident the projects will move quickly.

“It’s been a program that’s been widely used in Alaska previously, so it’s a well-oiled engine on getting that funding into the hands of the community,” she said.

One of the largest Tribes in the region said it’s the smaller communities that face the most need.

“Right now, we’re hearing more and more cases in our villages, so we’re worried about that,” said Richard Peterson, president of the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska. “And as Juneau’s also a regional hub, so I know people are reaching out even from the village asking us what we can to help with housing issues and isolation and quarantine.”

The Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska has received $1.5 million to build affordable housing to address overcrowding in Juneau and to work on a youth homeless shelter in Juneau. Currently, Juneau doesn’t have one.

Peterson said he sees these projects and others they’ve used CARES Act funding for–like an emergency response center–as part of a broader effort to increase emergency preparedness and resilience in the communities they serve across Southeast.

“So we’re building ourselves so that we will be able to respond, that we’ll be able to be a resource for our communities to carry them through any, whether it’s a fire or a tsunami or lack of ferry service, which I think we’re gonna see again this winter,” he said.

The final round of funding is expected to be announced later this week. The Angoon Community Association and the Organized Village of Kake have both received grants. Kake will use the money to build affordable housing units and renovate a shelter.

Erin McKinstry is a Report for America corps member.