• Sebastian Waricks

Struggling Renters in Alaska Rendered Invisible after the end of State Mandated Eviction Moratorium

Updated: Mar 21, 2021


Tourism in Alaska has been decimated due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Image of Alaska Photo by Hari Nandakumar on Unsplash


Do Renters in Alaska Need More Assistance?


Alaska's economy was once described by Scott Goldsmith as a “three-legged stool” in reference to Alaska’s dependence on the petroleum sector, the federal government and other sectors based on exporting seafood and tourism. According to economists, even if many Alaskans are not directly employed with the petroleum sector or in tourism, they are indirectly employed by these industries. The petroleum sector supports 75% of state government jobs and more than half of jobs in the local government. Covid-19 has halted much of the economic activity in these industries which has the potential to stifle Alaska’s economy even after the public health crisis has dissipated.


For Alaska, Covid-19 has not necessarily been a public health crisis, with only 1,401 cases and 14 deaths as of July 7, 2020, but instead has invited an economic crisis. Although Alaska reopened the state and resumed business activity on May 22, 2020, Alaska is dependent on economic activity outside the state to flow into the state. As Goldsmith observed, “the tourism and international cargo sectors sell services to people from outside of Alaska.” Even if Alaska has the Covid-19 pandemic under control, the pandemic has returned in full force in several states and put the nation on hold again which has Alaska in economic purgatory. If tourism is the second largest private employer that creates one in ten jobs in Alaska, then this means that thousands of renters in Alaska are struggling but where are their stories? Why hasn’t the media given a portrait of their stories or demanded exact data?


Media Offer a Rosy Depiction of Resources Available to Renters


At first glance, Alaska appears to have awash renters in a multitude of resources. Statewide eviction moratoriums were put in place to halt evictions until May 1, 2020 and then until June 30, 2020 and were legitimized with insightful remarks by judges that Alaska put evictions on hold due to the “current public health emergency”. In addition, there was the acknowledgement that the court shouldn’t allow the eviction of anyone who is quarantined to move forward. However, a deeper look reveals that renters seem to be a neglected demographic and were distributed with less Covid-19 disaster relief funds than other demographics. Governor of Alaska, Mike Dunleavy, pledged to establish a $1 billion disaster relief fund to tackle Covid-19 but only $10 million was reserved to assist renters. The $10 million which was funneled through the Alaska Housing Relief, a new program from the Alaska Housing Finance Corp., and the Municipality of Anchorage rent and mortgage assistance, provides $ 1,200 for a max of two months. "It's not a lot of money. It's enough for us to help folks for a month," admits Bryan Butcher AHFC's CEO and executive director. The vast majority of the rental assistance programs were structured on short term solutions. There are no economic relief programs for the debt that accumulated during the eviction moratorium. “That’s a debt load that may be near impossible to get out from under if you’re already living hand to mouth,” explained Michele Brown, president of United Way of Anchorage. Much of the disaster relief funds was allocated by Governor Dunleavy in a manner that suggests Covid-19 was solely a public health crisis as opposed to addressing individuals affected by the economic collapse of industries that are intimately connected to Alaska.


The program run by the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation, even if limited by funding, seemed to be a robust response to renters needing rental assistance but the program only accepted applications for eleven days, from June 15, 2020 to June 26, 2020. In addition, only about 8,000 households submitted when 36% of Alaska’s estimated 731,545 population are renters. The program only provided thin, restrained and temporary economic assistance in the form of an impersonal lottery but was devoid of comprehensive assistance such as legal services for tenants who may be dealing with unethical landlords or unique economic situations. Alaska’s Plan Forward, on May 22, 2020 which opened Alaska for business remarked that “Alaska had done an excellent job of managing Covid-19" and courts resumed evictions starting June 30, 2020 however there was no official statement on Alaska’s public economic crisis.

Media hids Struggling Renters and Leaves them Unaccounted For


There are reports on how Covid-19 affected Alaska’s economy including reports that the state had 40,000 fewer jobs in May 2020 than in May 2019 according to the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development. Of the 250 businesses that responded to a survey conducted between April 14, 2020 to April 23, 2020, by the Anchorage Economic Development Corporation, 64% of businesses reported a loss in revenue and 30% reported having to lay off workers. But publically accessible numbers and data on how many renters are at risk of eviction are a bit harder to come by. The term eviction tsunami, referring to how many renters may be evicted due to the aftermath of Covid-19, was “born out of discussions but is not based on data” according to Bill Popp, co-chair of Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz economic resiliency task force in the article “Fear of an ‘eviction tsunami’ mounts as Anchorage economy remains stalled”, which published on May 22, 2020. Popp continued on “ I don’t know. That’s the thing, I don’t know. I don’t know how many people are going to going back to work, I don’t know how many are going to stay in Anchorage. I don’t know what individual landlords' situations. It’s a big unknown”. Michele Brown stated that the amount of demand is extraordinary for rental assistance but exact numbers were not provided. Once again in an article published by KTUU-TV on June 16, 2020 Bill Popp claims again about the potential eviction crisis, “It is hard to quantify at this point because we don’t know how many people are in arrears.”


There are many subtle signs that renters in Alaska may need more help, from the increased calls to United Way for assistance and how Jim Baldwin, the CEO of the Alaska Food Bank recanted that there was a 75% increase in people needing help at the start of the pandemic. Or as Jenny Di Grappa, director of donor relations and communication explained, “We distributed 367,338 pounds more than we did in the same timeframe as last year, so over 300,000 more meals. We do not have numbers for this past month but we are continuing to see twice as many clients at our Mobile Food Pantries.” But no other data or even detailed portrait of individual renters and their unique situations. We only have more statements from unsure officials without exact data. "We think it could potentially be very big," Dan Coons, Fair Housing Project Director, said in reference to the amount of renters that are at risk of being evicted.


There was only one detailed portrait of renters published March 25, 2020 due to Mollie Barnes' privileged access to media as a contributor. Barnes is unable to continue her summer job as a sales representative for Juneau Tours. Her roommates were also adversely affected by Covid-19. Their businesses conducting tours have been effectively shut down. “We have over 25 employees that we just had to lay off for the whole summer, I have no income, and we have no end in sight,” Chris Paulson said. “This isn’t a two week mandate for us. This could be the entire summer. And in the midst of all this we’re being ousted from our home. We’re being told to go for a bike ride in the rain so they can have people come in to see the house or do inspections.” Their situation is complicated and diverges from the stereotype of a struggling renter who is refusing to pay rent. Although they have sufficient funds to pay rent and have repeatedly offered to remain in the house a bit longer while paying rent, since they are no longer able to buy the home that they are renting their landlord is harassing them with constant showings of the house. “We’ve asked for empathy, and we’ve gotten none,” Kelsey Paulson said. There are other renters in Alaska who are experiencing similarily complex and unique situations. We need more of these stories shared to challenge the predominate image of renters that are facing eviction and to challenge the idea these renters deserve to be subjected to abuse. But unfortunately we do not have their stories or have even officially counted them as a demographic that needs help.


Sources:

Alaska Landmine:State officials say ‘stay home.’ Our landlord wants us to leave, article published March 25, 2020.

Alaska Public Media: State offering rent and mortgage relief for Alaskans struggling during COVID-19 pandemic, article published June 11, 2020.

Anchorage Daily News: Alaska courts halt evictions, many other proceedings until May because of coronavirus concerns, article published March 24, 2020.

Anchorage Daily News: Alaska housing aid programs aim to keep homelessness at bay during pandemic’s economic crunch, article published June 24, 2020.

Anchorage Daily News: Fear of an ‘eviction tsunami’ mounts as Anchorage economy remains stalled, article published May 22, 2020.

Anchorage Daily News: What’s being done to help Anchorage residents taking a financial hit from coronavirus?, article published March 17, 2020.

Anchorage Economic Development Corporation (AEDC): AEDC releases results of COVID Business Impact Survey, results published April 30, 2020.

Institute of Social and Economic Research, University of Alaska Anchorage: What Drives the Alaska Economy?, research summary published December 2008.

Department of Numbers: Alaska Residential Rent and Rental Statistics

KINY: Rental assistance payments sent to landlords, lenders starting mid-July, article published June 30, 2020.

KTUU-TV: Alaska food pantries see a drop in demand but worry as pandemic benefits set to sunset, article published June 30, 2020.

KTUU-TV: Coronavirus economic relief provisions are set to end June 30, but impacts are hard to measure, article published June 16, 2020.

KTUU-TV: Coronavirus relief package passes through Alaska Legislature, article published March 29, 2020.

KTUU-TV: For tenants facing eviction due to COVID-19, attorneys weigh legal options, article published May 26, 2020.

KTUU-TV: Suspension on evictions, foreclosures ends July 1, governor says, article published June 30, 2020.

KTUU-TV: The CARES Act is still protecting some tenants from eviction, article published July 30, 2020.

KTVA 11: Alaskans who lost income due to COVID-19 can apply for rent or mortgage relief, article published June 8, 2020.

KTVA 11: Alaska's oil industry sheds 1,600 jobs in 1 month, article published June 8, 2020.

New York Times: Alaska Coronavirus Map and Case Count, count updated July 7, 2020.

Office of Governor Mike Dunleavy: Governor Dunleavy Unveils Alaska COVID-19 Economic Stabilization Plan, plan published March 20, 2020.

Resource Development Council: Alaska's Tourism Industry,

State of Alaska: Alaska’s Plan Forward, plan published May 22, 2020.

State of Alaska: Declaration of Public Health Disaster Emergency, order effective March 9, 2020.

Trial Courts for the State of Alaska: Presiding Judge Statewide Administrative Order Governing Relaxation and Suspension of Various Court Rules Based on Covid-19 Pandemic, administrative order effective March 23, 2020.

United States Census Bureau: Quick Facts - Alaska, population estimated July 1, 2019.


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