New legislative housing could address longstanding challenges for lawmakers and staff in Juneau

The Assembly Building, located steps away from the Capitol, is set to become legislative apartments as early as next year. (Photo by Katie Anastas/KTOO)

Members of the Alaska Legislature will soon have more housing options in Juneau.

Last month, a House-Senate committee approved spending $6.6 million to convert the Assembly Building, a state-owned office building just steps away from the Capitol, into 33 apartments as early as next year. 

Lawmakers and staff say it could help address common challenges they face when it comes to housing during the legislative session.

The downtown location could reduce the need to bring cars to Juneau. That’d be a perk for legislators like Anchorage Sen. Bill Wielechowski, who stopped bringing a car with him to Juneau after an icy, windy stop in Whittier to drop his car off at the ferry a few years ago.

“It was like a comedy scene,” he said. “I fell down and I couldn’t get back up. I was crawling, trying to get back to my car, because it was sheet ice and 80 mile an hour winds. And then my glasses flew off into the ocean. It was crazy.”

It would also bring the amount of session housing closer to pre-pandemic levels. The Legislative Affairs Agency keeps a list of rooms, apartments and houses for rent submitted by landlords. Executive Director Jessica Geary said the list got significantly smaller during COVID; there were nearly 100 fewer listings last year than there were in 2019.

The cost to rent an Assembly Building apartment has yet to be determined, according to Juneau Rep. Sara Hannan, the chair of the committee that approved the spending.

“The goal is not to undercut the market, and the goal isn’t really to become a profitable landlord,” she said. “We’re not going into the landlord business to make money, but I think there will be an expectation that it pays for itself and doesn’t undercut any market that’s out there.”

According to state data, the average rent for an apartment in Juneau is around $1,300. On top of their salaries, legislators who don’t live in Juneau receive $307 per day during the session to cover housing, food and other expenses.

Hannan said they also haven’t determined what will happen with the units when the Legislature isn’t in session. But she said the goal is to have the units available for legislators and staff during special sessions, which can happen throughout the tourist season.

Market rate apartments have become harder to find. In the last few years, Geary said, more and more listings submitted to the agency have also been posted on AirBnB.

“We’ve had some people try to list using their short term AirBnB rental rates, so a few hundred dollars a night,” she said. “We’ve turned down those listings, because we want it to still be affordable.”

Earlier tourism seasons have also brought challenges. Many leases meant for legislators and staff end in late April or early May. If the session goes longer than 90 days, it can put those renters in a tough spot.

“Ships are coming earlier and earlier,” Geary said. “We’re usually good on housing until May 1, and then it starts getting a little bit difficult.”

Mike Mason has been a legislative staffer since 2015. He said flexible lease dates could be a major benefit of the Assembly Building apartments.

“I can tell you horror stories,” he said. “I had housing for when we had five special sessions in a year. I did not have to lose my housing, but almost everybody else did. I’m stashing people’s clothes in my house because people are just couch-surfing.”

Mason is working for Anchorage Sen. Löki Tobin this year. Tobin said the housing crunch in April and May can have an impact on legislators’ ability to get work done.

“That 90-day period of time actually results in some work having to be shifted, because many staffers are moving out of the place they had secured into new accommodations,” she said. “You really see an impact to the speed and efficiency of some of the bills moving forward because of that unfortunate blip.”

Whether it’s getting a bill passed on time, or simply being able to walk to work, Tobin said the Assembly Building apartments will be a welcome addition. 

In the meantime, Geary said, Juneau residents are offering their support in a tough market.

“The housing market here, just like other places, is pretty tight,” she said. “But the Juneau community continues to graciously open their homes for legislators and legislative staff who come here and do the work for the people of Alaska. I think that really speaks volumes.”

The Legislative Affairs Agency still has rentals listed for the upcoming session, which starts Jan. 17. Legislators and staff in need of help finding housing, as well as Juneau homeowners with rentals available, can contact the agency’s office.

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