Seward City Hall

As the city moves forward with several initiatives to address Seward’s housing shortage, the March 2 meeting of the Port & Commerce Advisory Board heard from several prominent voices within the city, one of whom offered startling testimony as to the depth of the crisis.

Seward High School Principal Henry Burns addressed the board with an account of his own personal search for housing since arriving in Seward last June.

“I came here in June,” Burns said. “I was homeless for the first month, living in an RV down by the water. I put about five contracts on houses, didn’t get a sniff. One house, I put a hundred grand on the table over the asking price, didn’t get a sniff. My lease is up in two weeks, and I’m going to be currently probably living with a friend who’s the middle school principal. I am probably the prime example of a professional who can’t buy a home. Currently I had six teachers decline employment with me this year—these are not hourly jobs; these are $55-to-$75,000 a year jobs — just based on housing.”

Burns went on to explain that the housing shortage has also driven down school enrollment, which has led to reductions in teaching staff, while the only new teachers that can be hired are those who have already established residency or made special arrangements.

“When I say I was homeless, they say, ‘Well, it’s a rite of passage,’” he told the board. “Well, it shouldn’t be that way. I came here from North Pole, and my first introduction to Seward was July Fourth weekend. I was like, ‘Holy smokes! Where’d all these people come from?’ But now I look at the five houses I put contracts on, and nobody’s living in them. All those people that outbid me, they’re all summer rentals.”

Seward Real Estate Company’s Jena Petersen also addressed the board, reiterating realtor Nicole Lawrence’s statements at a previous PACAB meeting about the need for year-round rentals that can accommodate families considering Seward for permanent residence.

“We need places for people to live that they could come here and try out Seward, make sure this is where they want to live,” Petersen said. “We definitely need more rentals in this town, and the two- and three-bedroom units are what we need at this point. I know I could fill studio apartments again, but really, we need it for families and for larger spaces, at least a minimum of two-bedroom spaces.”

Yet while long-term rentals remain a neglected concern, the comment that offered the board the clearest insight into the problem, even drawing an audible gasp from the dais, came from Principal Burns.

“I make over a hundred grand a year, and I can’t afford the house that was just listed down the street,” he said.

At the meeting’s conclusion, the impact of the principal’s testimony was evident during closing remarks.

“I think we learned today that the housing issue might be a lot more urgent and in a greater depth than we’ve imagined,” said Board Member Benjamin Smith. “The discussion by Dr. Burns pretty much lays out that people making six figures are priced out of the market in Seward, and my concern is that people making $20,000, $50,000, $100,000 are also priced out of the market… This is an important moment in the history of this community to recognize that we have an issue here that needs to be addressed immediately before we run everybody out, and I think that that’s going to happen a lot faster than we might anticipate.”

“I encourage Planning & Zoning to consider what can be done about the many, many homes that are being bought in the city that are not being used for year-round housing,” said Vice Chair Lynda Paquette. “This is not a unique situation. There are towns like Telluride, Colorado and many other similar towns that have gone through this same business of, once AirBnBs showed up, the whole thing changed, and as a municipality we need to figure out how to get our arms back around it.”

“There’s code violators in this town for sure, with AirBnBs and VRBOs,” added Board Member Colby Lawrence, “and everyone knows that there’s no enforcement of that, and I think that if we could figure out a way to help with that, that could bring a lot of single-family homes back into the real estate market.”

The final word at the meeting was that of Harbormaster Norm Regis, who offered a solution.

“I know it’s been talked about a long time, but with these new subdivisions going in, I just think somehow, through code or whatever, to cap the VRBOs,” Regis said. “Cap ‘em. Stop ‘em. Grandfather in the ones that’re here now. I know everybody wants to make money. You can’t blame anybody for trying to make money, but it definitely created a housing problem everywhere — not just Seward — but I think if we can just cap it, it’s a start.”