Bethel opens housing to retain city workers

Willow Place Apartments entry
The Willow Place Apartments entryway. (Photo by Dean Swope /KYUK)

Jobs in rural Alaska are often seen as a career stepping stone. Professionals take a job for a year, maybe two, and leave. They take career skills and experience with them rather than reinvesting in the community. The high turnover rate prevents institutional knowledge from accumulating and community trust in its professionals from strengthening.

How to break the cycle and retain workers is one of rural Alaska’s most vexing puzzles. The community of Bethel thinks it’s got one piece figured out.

Willow Place Apartments view
The view outside a Willow Place apartment window. (Photo by Dean Swope/KYUK)

Walking into the room, the first thing I notice is the view — a fringe of willows and then miles of snowy tundra. The window belongs to one of six new apartments, specifically constructed for public safety, education and health professionals in Bethel.

The idea is by providing high quality, affordable housing, Bethel can better recruit and retain personnel.

20151130 Michelle DeWitt at Willow Place Apartments
Bethel Community Services Foundation Executive Director Michelle DeWitt inside the Willow Place Apartments. (Photo by Dean Swope/KYUK)

Bethel Community Services Foundation led the project. The group wants to address community issues, and Executive Director Michelle DeWitt says housing sits high on that list.

“When people leave positions here,” DeWitt said, “housing is often at the root of one of their challenges or one of their areas of dissatisfaction. We have a lack of new, appropriate, nice housing.”

These apartments are nice — wood pattern floors and cabinets, modern appliances, high energy conservation ratings and, of course, the scenic views.

Mayor Rick Robb was also impressed.

“Well this is beautiful,” Robb said. “There’s no doubt. Course it’s brand new, all redone, so it’s beautiful. This was kind of a white elephant, kind of an albatross. It’s been totally renovated.”

Rick Robb at Willow Place Apartments
Bethel Mayor Rick Robb. (Photo by Dean Swope/KYUK)

The building was once a daycare center, left vacant several years ago. The push to revitalize an older building helped attract one of the project’s funders — the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation.

For over a decade, the corporation has funded housing projects for teachers, health professionals and public safety workers across rural Alaska to decrease turnover. So far, the program has shown success with teacher retention.

Derrick Chan is a planner with AHFC and said the key to keeping workers long term is getting them to stay past their first year.

“If a person works in an area beyond that one-year period,” Chan said, “they’re less likely to transition out. We’re really trying to provide an environment where they can call home, and at the end of the day, they have a place to kick their feet up. They feel welcome.”

Bethel City Manager Ann Capela said that initial welcome can make or break a new employee’s first impression.

“This is a true story. We had an employee come, take a job at Bethel. We had no place to put him up for the night. We put him up at the annex. He looked at his surroundings, and he left on the first flight in the morning,” Capela said.

The city’s newest hire, a firefighter EMT, will have a different experience. He arrived this week with his family and moved directly into one of the units. It’s a step up from the fire department’s usual protocol of housing new recruits in the fire station for their first month.

Fire Chief Bill Howell hopes the apartments will attract more workers.

“I would think this is definitely helpful from a recruiting standpoint,” Howell said. “You know, a lot of the times, people have the financial resources to get housing in Bethel, and they just can’t find it.”

DeWitt said she’ll consider the housing successful if people stay past one year.

“I’d be really excited if we had people who were in the units for 18 months to two years,” DeWitt said, “and I’d be even more excited if they left the units to purchase a home in our community. Retention is a really positive thing. When you have quality people in important positions, the outcomes are better for everyone.”

The units opened on Nov. 30 and already four of the six spaces are occupied. Tenants include the firefighter, two police officers, and a community safety patrol officer and their families.

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