Kugzruk Kommons is a step toward better housing in Nome
A former Baptist Church with a lot of rooms is now a residence for people attracted to communal living and reasonable rent.
Kugzruk Kommons is the creation of Janice Wilson, who grew up with nine siblings in Nondalton. Her family’s house was big and often housed kids who were not related but needed a home. So communal living comes natural to her. Once she’d grown up and the home was not so full she turned it into a bed and breakfast, filling a need in the small village for someplace for people to stay when visiting. While the lodge nearby was charging $10,000 a week she had clean rooms for $90 a night.
Wilson’s roots are in Wales and she eventually returned to the region, taking a job in human resources at the hospital. For two years she’d drive by the former church, which was for sale, and think “I know I can do it, I’ve done it before. I had a B&B and it flourished.” She was interested in doing something to help people in Nome and as she’s responsible for her mother and other members of her family she wanted a project that was sound financially but would not dominate her life the way a bed and breakfast would. “I have a full time job already so I don’t want that much responsibility,” she said. “I don’t want to live for a business.”
She decided to take the big step of purchasing the building and the deal closed in November 2018. She’d missed the last barge so no construction materials would be coming for a while. “We’re not completely done with the facelift,” she said. She and her husband Paul McDowell painted and installed new flooring. The 1979 building is in good shape, solid and clean. The fire marshal, who is in Anchorage, told them they could make no changes. “When we are ready to attack it again we have to have everything drawn out for them, everything inspected by the city inspector and fire marshal approval,” said Wilson.
On the first of the building’s three floors is what used to be the church’s meeting room. It features a baptismal pool with entrance and exit and a glass window for the viewing of baptisms. There are two hallways lined with individual rooms. “It’s so big and there are so many rooms,” said Wilson. “They had wooden beds everywhere, they had bunkbeds and mats. They housed a lot of people here. They must have had a lot of boys living here at one time. There were pictures of a lot of boys.” The waterless baptismal pool is now stuffed full of mattresses.
McDowell, who grew up in Iliamna, is a marine engineer and has a background in construction. He’s helping to negotiate the red tape they’ve had to deal with. “All we can do is paint and do the flooring. You can’t even replace an appliance in this town without a permit.”
“He can paint and do flooring like no other,” said Wilson. “I have big dreams. What I want to do is to finish the construction. There’s enough space downstairs that I can probably add three more rooms. I have 11 right now. I want to add three bathrooms. The downstairs has just a tiny little kitchen and I want to add a large kitchen like this one where the swimming pool is.” She would like to make some money off the project so she can buy another building. The former church is a modern building that is up to code. “Everything is functional,” she said.
The residents include professional people in Nome on short term work engagements as well as non-professionals. One thing they have in common is they are social and like to be around other people. “We’ve established good relationships,” said Wilson.
One of the residents is Michelle Slwooko, a GED tutor working at Kawerak. She’s originally from Gambell and participated in the ANSEP program, which gives math and science oriented rural high school students advanced educational opportunities. She graduated from UAA and soon secured a job with Kawerak as a tutor for young people hoping to finish their GED. “I was trying to find housing a month and a half after I got a job up here,” said Slwooko. “I was having a hard time finding reasonable housing for my financial budget. My supervisor wanted me up here as soon as possible and she scrambled for any kind of housing. One of her coworkers who happens to be Janice’s great aunt had been here and told my supervisor about it and she told me. I’m a big fan of month to month leases.”
A big advantage to communal living based housing is it makes rent much cheaper than an individual apartment. Boarding houses used to be popular in America and Kugzruk Kommons has much in common with that housing model. The cost of building in Nome is so high that alternative ways to provide reasonably priced housing are needed. Janice Wilson’s approach meets the requirements of people who don’t want to break the bank on rent and enjoy living with others.