Healing on hold: Waiting for subsidized housing in Juneau

Kourtney Melton has been on the waitlist at Gruening Park for about eight months. (Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins/KTOO)
Kourtney Melton has been on the waitlist at Gruening Park for about eight months. (Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins/KTOO)

Imagine if 100 names stood between you and a place to live. Affordable housing is in short supply in Juneau. And for those looking for subsidized units, the wait can feel extremely long — especially when your family is on the brink of homelessness.

Kourtney Melton tries to check on her housing application at Gruening Park, an affordable housing complex, at least once a week.

She’s been on the waitlist for about eight months. She has three kids, ages 3, 7 and 11. And in her words, it’s starting to get scary. Her family lives in an RV parked in Switzer Village.

“I’m parked in my mom’s driveway, and so we can’t do that. We’d have to have our own lot and pay for our own lot space. They just don’t have one available for us, so we have to move,” Melton said.

As that day creeps closer, Kourtney is running through her options. She could stay at AWARE, a domestic violence shelter. But her boyfriend — not the person she has issues with — watches her kids when she’s at work, and the shelter doesn’t allow men.

She’s advised to call around to different places. Maybe something will open up.

“So, I’m at the top of their waiting list, and it looks like I could be in soon. But it just depends,” Melton said.

Her family used to have dual income, and money wasn’t as tight. She was married. She moved back to her hometown of Juneau with her husband last year after living in Oregon — hoping for a fresh start. She said she didn’t always feel safe in the relationship. The fighting escalated.

Then last summer, her husband took a job commercial fishing. He was gone for weeks at a time. When the season ended, he didn’t come back.

“So I was relieved at first. Now, I’m kind of torn,” Melton said. “I need him here. I need him to help with the kids. And I need help with everything.”

A greenhouse at Gruening Park.
Gruening Park has been around since the 1970s. It was initially created for middle-income housing but later took on a larger range of affordable housing. (Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins/KTOO)

In October, she put her name on the list at Gruening Park. The housing complex has 96 units and about half of those are eligible for a Section 8 voucher. Some apartments are rented out at market value. Others are subsidized based on income.

Kourtney works at a sports bar and grill — picking up extra shifts at another restaurant when the cruise ships are in town. In the off-season, she makes about $1,000 a month. And if she gets into Gruening, she would pay no more than 30 percent of that for rent.

“A lot of times people want to know to exactly when we’re going to have a unit, and that’s really impossible to know,” said Tamara Rowcroft, the general manager.

She said typically, a space opens up every month. But they don’t force anyone to move out. If someone’s income improves, the rent gets adjusted.

“The most you would pay for rent? Well, right now our market rent for a four bedroom is $1,160 a month,” Rowcroft said.

The least someone would pay is $0.

The apartments are first come, first served, and Tamara said the one and two bedrooms are the most in demand. Three and four bedrooms, like the one Kourtney is trying to get into, have the shortest wait. Still, some have been waitlisted for up to a year, Tamara said.

In the meantime, Gruening Park tries to encourage people to apply around, she said. There are other subsidized housing units, and some private landlords take Section 8 vouchers.

Tamara thinks, overall, Juneau is doing pretty good, compared to other cities. But is it enough? 

“Well, no. We need to keep working,” Rowcroft said.

The Terraces at Lawson Creek are a recently completed affordable housing complex on Douglas. (Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins/KTOO)
The Terraces at Lawson Creek are a recently completed affordable housing complex in Douglas, with 40 apartments. Next door, another 40 units are being built. (Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins/KTOO)

With no other options, Kourtney moved her RV from Switzer Village and into a friend’s garage. There are no hookups for water or sewer.

“When we can, if the door’s not locked, we can use our friend’s bathroom or we have to pee outside, like we’re camping,” Melton said.

And her oldest daughter is living with a friend.

“I can’t live without her like this because she’s 11, and that’s such an important time. And me not being there is, like, killing me,” Kourtney said.

Even though she is near the top of the list at Gruening Park, she’s trying to apply to other places. It’s been a challenge without having her own car. Without a phone, she’s worried she won’t get the message if a place does open up.

Kourtney isn’t sure what her future will look like. She just hopes it has four safe walls.

“Don’t even care if I have furniture. I just want to be with all my kids again, all together. Make dinner together. And have, you know, game night. And start healing from their dad leaving, all together,” Melton said. “Because we can’t do it separately like this.”

She’s considering packing up the RV and moving back to Oregon. She said her family can’t wait.

Funding for Chasing the Dream is provided by the JPB Foundation and the Ford Foundation. It’s part of an ongoing series about poverty and opportunity in America.

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