Petersburg’s harbors and downtown from the air on Monday, June 27, 2022 (Joe Viechnicki/KFSK)

Petersburg will have a task force on housing later this year. The borough assembly Monday voted to form that group and seek people in the community willing to look for solutions to a shortage of available living space.

Assembly member Jeff Meucci proposed forming a task force of 12-15 members of the community to seek housing solutions. It would be similar to a group the assembly formed this spring on early childhood education.

“I think we, like child care I think this is one of the most important issues facing Petersburg,” Meucci said at Monday’s meeting. “Every person that we’ve hired within the borough over the last several months, police officers, up at the fire department, Mountain View Manor, they were all looking for houses. And without a place to stay it’s impossible for somebody to work here.”

Meucci has joined others in calling Petersburg’s housing shortage a crisis. He noted a separate citizens group has already been meeting on the issue this year and thought that could become part of a new task force.

“For me the task force just focuses the assembly and the borough’s focus on housing,” Meucci said. “I’m not taking away from anything that a community group is doing but I think anything that we can do, the more we do, the better it is and hopefully we’ll come up with some kind of solution.”

The problem’s come up throughout the country. It was cited as the number one workforce problem for most businesses in Southeast during an annual survey this year. The lack of housing was noted in Petersburg’s 2016 comprehensive plan, which includes a chapter on housing. It recommends opening up new land for development, allowing smaller lot sizes and multiple dwelling units on the same lot among other solutions.

Assembly member Dave Kensinger thought the local government had a better chance of addressing the housing problem than the lack of space in child care programs.

“Unlike child care housing is something the borough can have an impact on because the borough has the largest reservoir of unoccupied land in the area. And then also through planning and zoning. Simple changes that a lot of communities around the country are making now in their planning and zoning codes and also changes that were originally proposed under the original changes to the zoning code could dramatically increase the availability of housing in the community.”

However, assembly member Bob Lynn wanted a limited focus for a task force

“This thing is so wide open it’s the world and we’re going to have to pull this back to what we really want to see done,” Lynn said. “And when we sit down with a task group, whoever is on that, what do we want as outcome or what are we looking for. That’s kind of where I’m at. I think the idea’s excellent. I just don’t think it’s well enough thought out yet.”

Lynn was the only vote against forming the task force but it passed on a 4-1 vote. Mayor Mark Jensen and assembly member Tom Fine-Walsh were not at the meeting.

The 2016 comprehensive plan also suggested the borough commission a housing needs assessment. Borough manager Steve Giesbrecht said he’s meeting this week with the consultant that drafted that document to consider following through. But he said he’s withholding judgment on that until he can better understand the focus and cost of such a study.

“One of the things a housing needs assessment would do would be outlining that,” Giesbrecht said. “You need 14 percent more single family houses. You need more multi-family, whatever those parameters happen to be. And based on that, the assembly has to decide how fast you want to move, how much money you want to throw out at. And that starts to determine my staff allocations.”

Assembly members agreed a work session could help narrow the focus of a task force. They scheduled that for August 29 and they set a September 26 deadline for people interested in being part of a housing task force. That would mean the assembly could appoint that group at its first meeting in October.