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Shell exacerbates housing shortage in Alaska port town

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Nation’s largest fishing port was already short on housing. With Shell in town, locals say things are getting worse.

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Screen Shot 2015-08-13 at 11.35.25Ryan Schuessler Aug. 13, 2015

Not much has changed in Unalaska, Alaska, since Flor Luna had trouble finding a place to live when she moved here 14 years ago.

“When I first came here, I put myself on every list [for housing] there was available,” Luna recalled. Nobody ever called her back.

She wasn’t the first or the last person to struggle to find affordable housing in the town that hosts the country’s largest fishing port. Out of what she called sheer luck, Luna was eventually able to find a place to rent, but not everyone is that lucky. During peak fishing season, Unalaska’s population can sometimes triple, and there still isn’t enough space for everyone who pours into town looking for work.

And now tiny, far-flung Unalaska is bracing for another curveball: Shell. The housing shortage isn’t anything new – longtime residents can remember when people rented broken-down cars as a place to sleep, or made a camp in abandoned World War II-era bunkers.

Today, it’s the oil giant’s fleet looming around the city’s harbor that’s making waves, and locals say affordable housing is getting even harder to find as a result.

“We have a community who focuses really hard on bringing industry in and making it easy for industry to basically set up shop here,” said lifelong Unalaska resident and former city council member Dennis Robinson. But, he said, the community has “failed miserably” at making sure there is enough affordable housing for all its residents.

Royal Dutch Shell is using Unalaska and the adjacent Port of Dutch Harbor in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands, some 2,000 miles north of Seattle and 800 miles west of Anchorage, as a launching point for exploratory drilling in the Chukchi Sea – another thousand miles to the north.

When the Obama administration gave Shell the thumbs up for exploratory drilling in the arctic earlier this year, it sealed Unalaska’s fate: Oil will leave its mark on this fishing town. To what extent is still up in the air, but residents are worried that if Shell finds oil up north, and its employees flood into Unalaska, even more locals will be priced out.

“Especially during the fishing season, it’s already stressful enough,” said 25-year-old Unalaskan Andrea Treiber. “It’s going to be a whole lot harder if they live here.”

In the 1970s, a fishing and crabbing boom grew Unalaska’s population of just over 300 people by almost 300 percent. By the 2010 census, the population was nearing 4,500, and locals say the infrastructure never caught up.

Unalaska’s remote location in the Aleutian Islands and the challenging topography keep development costs high, resulting in the housing shortage. If it’s available, many Unalaskans live in company housing built by their employers, such as the seafood companies that process fish in Dutch Harbor. Eighty percent of Unalaska’s fulltime residents rent. The lucky ones own their own homes.  

Residents reported paying as much as $800 a month for a small room with a bed, but no bathroom, or up to $1,500 for a modest studio. Small houses can sell for more than half-a-million dollars.

Even the city government has had a hard time finding housing for its employees.

“When we have people we hire who come from the outside, they have nowhere to go,” said assistant city manager Patrick Jordan. At times, there have been up to a dozen city employees living in Unalaska without permanent housing.

A 2010 study by the city found that Unalaska needed more than 300 additional housing units – a number that has since grown as the population increased over the last five years. City leaders have been talking about the housing shortage for decades with little turning up in terms of widespread, long-term solutions.

Now that Shell has come to town, the pressure to solve the problem has intensified.

“The unknown is what effect the oil development is going to have on us,” Jordan said. “As a city we almost have to react to what happens after the fact.”

That all depends on whether Shell finds oil in the Chukchi Sea, and the surrounding list of unanswered questions. Would the company keep Unalaska as its hub? If so, how many workers will be coming to town? If they come, where will they live?

“We work and communicate locally to mitigate potential impacts in Unalaska,” Shell spokesperson Kelly op de Weegh said in an emailed statement. “As for the long-term future, our first step is to determine whether our Chukchi operations will lead to a commercial discovery.”

Shell employees and contractors have been coming and going since the company’s drill arrived in Dutch Harbor earlier this summer. Many of them stay in a block of rooms now on hold at the town’s one hotel, and rooms are released if they are not used, op de Weegh said. Locals say the company is tying up more of the already scarce short-term housing in Unalaska during peak tourism season.

Locals also say the remote town’s cellular and Internet networks have slowed since Shell arrived, and that it takes longer for their mail to arrive.

“People raised their [rent] once they heard Shell was coming in,” said Unalaska resident Delores Gregory. Before moving away for school several years ago, Gregory was paying $1,700 a month for an apartment. A few months later in 2012, when Shell’s activity in Unalaska restarted, she heard that the unit’s rent had risen to more than $2,000 a month. That’s how much Flor Luna and her husband pay now.

“It’s not like I can go down the road and find something cheaper,” Luna said. “We’d love to have something smaller so we don’t pay so much, but there’s nothing available.”

“They’re having to move to Anchorage or other villages or down south to have a place to live,” Andrea Treiber said of her childhood friends. When she finished college a couple of years ago, Treiber wouldn’t have been able to afford to live in Unalaska if she hadn’t moved back in with her parents.

“This is my home,” she added. “This is the only place I’ve lived.”

Many in town fear that Shell’s arrival will turn Unalaska into the next Williston, North Dakota – the town of less than 15,000 residents that had the highest rent in the country after an oil boom more than doubled its population in 2014.

“It’s already happened,” Robinson said of the oil giant putting more stress on Unalaska’s housing shortage. “And it’s going to get worse.”

Ryan Schuessler is a journalist currently based in Alaska. @RyanSchuessler1 

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