Council votes to support NCC’s Housing First project
By Diana Haecker
In its first meeting of the new year, the Nome Common Council had a light agenda to work through on Monday, but made two significant decisions: the four present council members voted to advance another extension of the Emergency Ordinance that gives the city manager power to act swiftly in case of a severe COVID outbreak and they voted to support the Nome Community Center’s $10 million Housing First project with $200,000. The better part of the meeting was spent discussing the Housing First project, championed by the non-profit Nome Community Center. The community center’s Executive Director Rhonda Schneider has held presentations to advance a Housing First project in Nome for months, presenting at city commission and council meetings. The concept is not new, but new to Nome. The premise: give people a roof over their heads and they will be more successful on the journey to end their homelessness and substance misuse. The Community Center’s proposal is to build a 15-unit complex that will be self-sustaining in operation and maintenance and would help those chronically homeless people to get off the street. In Monday’s meeting, Schneider asked the city for a $200,000 contribution to the $10 million project. She also updated the council on the particulars: a purchase agreement for three lots along Greg Kruschek Avenue is signed. In order to protect the Nome Community Center, a LLC was created that will oversee the project. The funding portfolio includes 13 funders, with five solid confirmations. An application packet, two-binders thick, was to go out to the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation on Tuesday, January 11, filled with Nome-specific data on the housing situation, and the Nome Community Centers research of the homeless population, their needs and custom-tailored approaches to Nome. As the Community Center already offers services via the emergency night shelter NEST to the homeless, they have daily interactions with the clients and know their names, their stories and their needs. Schneider told the council that the project does not aim to end homelessness, but to offer one solution. “We will not solve the housing problem in Nome with this,” she said. But, she continued, “we want to be part of solving some of the needs.”
In citizen comments Chuck Fagerstrom took to the podium and spoke up against the project. He said Nome could not afford this financially and socially. He said he’d rather see solutions being sought for mothers who try to care for their children and can’t find a home, instead of building an expensive housing complex for “inebriates who don’t care about Nome.” He said he’d rather see effort being put into finding adequate housing for families and seeing to it that youth are taking care of, not chronic inebriates.
Speaking as a resident, Cole Cushman also addressed the council disagreeing with the Housing First concept. He said, despite having to work three jobs, he found the time to do some research and found that in other communities, the Housing First concept was beneficial for the individuals but not the community as a whole.
When the council addressed the resolution to allocate $200,000 to the project, Rhonda Schneider was given the opportunity to rebut. First, she said, the Housing First concept has been publicly discussed in Nome since 2009. The project has widespread support from Nome organizations. The concept is that the building’s operation and maintenance will be self-sustaining and being paid by HUD vouchers as well as contributions from the clients via dividends from their native corporations or the PFD. It will work like the Senior apartments Munaqsri. Schneider said that the Community Center has five housing units at the moment and the experience is that those who become housed, better their lives, get off the alcohol and in some instances secure gainful employment and stability. City Manager Glenn Steckman argued that the project promises to cut down on police and ambulance calls and would in the end save the city money if those indeed would go down. Councilmember Scot Henderson looked at the numbers and came to the conclusion that the city’s contribution would be only two percent of the entire project, the building would be self-sustaining, meaning no additional funds would be needed from the city. “I’m impressed by the numbers,” he said. “That’s a pretty good return on the city’s investment.” In the end, the council members present — Mark Johnson, Scot Henderson, Jerald Brown and Sig Topkok— were convinced and voted unanimously to pass the resolution.
The council also passed through first reading the extension of the emergency ordinance in place since the COVID-19 pandemic started in March 2020.
The city manager reported that the city prepares for a spring of activities that were curtailed last year. The Iron Dog, the Iditarod and the Lonnie O’Connor Basketball tournament are planned to be held. Nome will host the National Guard and their military drill “Arctic Eagle” at the end of February.
Steckman also requested a work session and a special meeting to discuss comments to be directed to the ABC board as the liquor license for AC’s Quick Stop liquor store on Front Street is up for renewal. Councilmember Scot Henderson had requested a work session as he felt that many problems on Front Street and in Nome hinge on the problem of alcohol abuse. “We need to go beyond just asking if they [the stores] pay their taxes or of the police hears complaints and then we rubber stamp the renewal. We need to have a conversation.” He said the community needs to weigh in. “This is the community’s opportunity to speak up.” A work session and a following special session of the Nome Common Council is set for Monday, January 17 at 5:30 p.m.
During the second round of citizen’s comments, Chuck Fagerstrom took to the podium again. After hearing Schneider’s explanation, he said, he changed his mind. “I hope all will hold true what Rhonda commented. After hearing her presentation, it does sound like it is what Nome needs,” he said.
In councilmember comments, Jerald Brown brought up garbage situation in town. He said social media blows up with complaints about garbage not being collected, or collected on odd days, and then customers are billed for extra bags. Alaska Waste is responsible for garbage collection in Nome and they use NJUS to bill household on the same bill as the utilities. The reason for the upheaval is that Buddy Okleasik is on personal leave and Alaska Waste is run by Jamie and James North, a couple from Healy who just moved to Nome two weeks ago, according to Jamie North. She said in a phone call with the Nugget that it is just the two of them who operate garbage collection in Nome, that they don’t know the routes or days when trash pickup traditionally occurred and that they get their marching orders for the day from the Wasilla office of Alaska Waste, day by day. “We try our best,” she said.