Northwest Alaska Households Can Access Assistance
Homeowners situated in the Northwest Arctic region are currently receiving substantial aid aimed at improving their dwellings, utility expenses, and easing the burden of mortgage payments. This assistance comes as a collaborative effort between the Northwest Inupiat Housing Authority and the federal Homeowner Assistance Fund program, which seeks to support at-risk homeowners living in various communities including Selawik, Noorvik, Ambler, Kobuk, Deering, Kiana, and Shungnak. This initiative is managed by Paulette Schuerch, the Housing Director at the organization, who highlighted that the funds are sourced from the U.S. Department of Treasury and form part of a broader COVID-relief program.
From November to December, a total of 75 homeowners lodged applications to avail of this assistance. They can expect imminent relief in terms of utility and mortgage payments beginning this month, while aid for home improvements is slated to start rolling out this summer. The predominant request from applicants is for assistance with home improvements, which are necessary for making essential repairs, alleviating overcrowded living situations, and ensuring the continued habitability of their homes. Schuerch gave an example of an elderly resident who required help to install a new hot water heater and wood stove as their current furnace is dysfunctional.
The Northwest Inupiat Housing Authority has the responsibility to conduct a thorough assessment of the houses in question, prioritizing critical improvements such as repairing heating systems, doors, windows, and air circulation mechanisms. However, there is a financial cap of $30,000 to cover these needs per house, inclusive of the costs of shipping materials. Schuerch recognizes the constraints, stating, “We just have to do what we can with what we have.”
As part of their strategic planning, the Housing Authority aims to provide home improvement assistance to residents in Deering and Selawik by the summer of 2023; Kiana and Noorvik by the summer of 2024; and Ambler, Kobuk, and Shungnak by the summer of 2025.
Assistance with utility costs was another common request, with numerous homeowners applying for aid to manage electrical bills, heating fuel, water and sewer payments, and even trash removal. The allocated funds can be utilized to offset both overdue and future payments. Additionally, some homeowners applied for assistance to manage past and future mortgage payments and insurance, and to reinstate their mortgage, although these requests were fewer in number.
To qualify for the program, homeowners must be tribal members and meet certain income requirements. These requirements stipulate that a two-person family needs to earn $79,900 or less, and a five-person family must not exceed $88,800, based on the income limits summary for the Northwest Arctic Borough.
The Northwest Inupiat Housing Authority conducted a survey involving 145 homebuyers in the region, including various tribes and municipalities, to determine the areas of greatest financial need. After formulating a program plan, they sought community feedback, gained the Board of Commissioners’ approval, and then submitted it to the Department of Treasury for review.
In the months of January and February, the Housing Authority was busy verifying applications and gathering the necessary documentation. Though the application for assistance is currently closed, there may be an opportunity for a second round, according to Schuerch. However, residents in Kotzebue, Kivalina, and Noatak Buckland are encouraged to contact their respective tribes to seek assistance.
Looking ahead, the Housing Authority is planning to undertake a new borough-wide housing needs assessment this month. This will help identify homes that are dilapidated, abandoned, and in urgent need of improvements. Schuerch highlighted the importance of understanding overcrowding, the age of the houses, the type of housing (single or multi-family), and safety for the living.
To ensure the assessment accurately reflects the community’s needs, the Housing Authority will work closely with the Northwest Arctic Borough, Alaska Mental Health Trust, Behavioral Health Services, and Maniilaq Association. They aim to identify houses with residents having disabilities and assess the need for assisted living facilities in the region. The last assessment took place in 2005, and almost two decades later, Schuerch emphasizes the necessity for a fresh study.
Funding for this endeavor has been secured from the Northwest Arctic Borough through the Village Improvement Fund, as well as from the Alaska Mental Health Trust. The Housing Authority is currently recruiting around 23 individuals, including survey coordinators and surveyors, to conduct the assessment. They will be conducting door-to-door surveys for a comprehensive understanding of the community’s housing needs.