U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski chaired a first of its kind hearing on housing overcrowding, affordability and its impacts on rural Alaska. It took place in Savoonga, located in the Bering Sea, where witnesses testified about the issues and their effects on the Alaska Native way of life. 

Witnesses included the president of the Native Village of Savoonga, Savoonga's Clinic Manager of Norton Sound Health Corporation, the principal of Hogarth Kingeekuk Sr. Memorial School, president/CEO of the Bering Straits Regional Housing Authority, the administrator of the Alaska Office of Native American Programs within Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and a High School Senior who attends Hogarth Kingeekuk Senior Memorial School.

Overcrowding affects about 2 percent of households in the U.S., but 16 percent of American Indian and Alaska Native households in tribal areas. The situation in the Bering Strait region is one of the worst in Alaska.

“The overcrowding rate here in the Bering Strait region is one of the highest in the state, with an estimated 27 percent of households being classified as overcrowded or severely overcrowded. That’s more than 4.3 times the statewide average and more than 8.3 times the national average,” Murkowski said. “I think it is important to point out that overcrowding in Indian Country is often the expression of what is actually homelessness, with families taking in relatives or community members who otherwise could not find affordable housing options. It is not uncommon for a household in rural Alaska to have multiple generations or multiple families living in them.”

“In Savoonga, unsheltered homelessness would lead to death during the fierce winter weather," said Christopher Kolerok, president/CEO of the Bering Straits Regional Housing Authority. "Rooted in a close-knit culture and deep familial links, many families prefer to house people in need, and live in severe overcrowding, rather than let individuals risk certain death if they are unsheltered…Overcrowded housing and the lack of housing are interchangeable conditions in rural Alaska. The lack of safe, sanitary and affordable housing threatens the survival of Native cultures and the villages and towns many Alaska Natives call home. For American Indians and Alaska Natives, overcrowded housing is a manifestation of what would be unsheltered homelessness in other parts of the country.”

Overcrowding also raises health concerns, as 465 households in the Bering Strait region don’t have running water or sewer.

“Far too many American Indian and Alaska Native (AIAN) communities struggle with overcrowded housing, shortages of affordable housing, substandard living conditions, and significant barriers to economic opportunity,” said Greg Stucky, administrator of the Alaska Office of Native American Programs within HUD. “In 2006-2010, AIAN people living in tribal areas had poverty rate and an unemployment rate that were approximately twice as high as the national averages. During this same period, AIAN people in large tribal areas were more than seven times as likely to live in housing that was overcrowded and more than four times as likely to live in housing that did not have adequate plumbing facilities and/or kitchens than the national average.”

High school senior Jacob Iya expressed concerns about the effects of overcrowding on Alaska Native culture and traditions.

“Due to funding cuts, housing becomes less available and the materials needed for the housing are bare and expensive. With said issues, our culture, language, and way of life is at risk. I see more and more children being deprived of learning their language every year. Traditions and moral values have nearly vanished, but for the years to come we have learned to live with what we have as our ancestors did before us,” Iya said. “Loss of culture and language is slowly becoming a reality, but with the assistance of the tribal community and the school, we can get our language back. We are an ever-growing people that do not know the luxury of having a new house to our own for more than a decade, maybe longer. As we look to the path ahead of us, we shall look, not with negativity or frustration, but with hope and happiness. Igamsighayuviikamken. Thank you for listening to our voice.”

The rates of overcrowding are expected to increase because the rate of housing construction isn’t keeping up with population growth.

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