Across the country housing prices are climbing, and many people are struggling to afford to live in their own communities. In Petersburg, rising prices have combined with another factor – a simple lack of space.
Chase Kirby recently began a job as a police officer in Petersburg. He says the chief made it clear during the interview that housing is hard to come by here. But he wasn’t expecting it to be this hard.
Kirby has a wife, three children, six dogs, and one cat. They’re all waiting back in Utah while he tries to find at least a three bedroom house. He’s working with a realtor, and the borough is reaching out on his behalf, but nothing has opened up so far. Meanwhile, Kirby is staying in the firehouse.
“It’s not horrible,” he says, “but it’s not home.”
He says that he and his family miss each other. He’s heard that some homes may become available several months from now, but nothing definite.
Just in the past few years, housing has become a big issue in this small fishing community. Much of the nation is experiencing a lack of affordable housing, and many people have had to move to cheaper areas with longer commutes. But like many Southeast towns, Petersburg is on an island, so commuting from out of town isn’t an option.
“The rental market is very tight,” says local real estate agent Sarah Holmgrain, “as well as the home sales market. It’s difficult to find rentals right now that can accommodate really anybody more than a person or more than a couple.”
A quick online search shows two homes for sale in Petersburg and zero rentals. But 15 airbnbs are available. Holmgrain says that’s one area of Petersburg’s housing market that has grown.
“And that’s where I think a lot of our rentals have either disappeared into,” she says, “that, or as people have developed rentals, they become Airbnbs.”
That lack of rentals limits the options for people who are trying to make a transition in their lives – whether they’re hoping to move into a situation, like Kirby with his new job, or out of one.
“If today, you had to pick up and leave, where would you go?” says Annette Bennett. They’re the director of WAVE, a nonprofit organization that offers assistance to people in Petersburg who are impacted by violence. “There just isn’t an option. And so that puts people choosing to stay in an unhealthy or unsafe space, because they’d rather do that than be homeless. And there’s also some people that choose to live in their cars, because they can’t live at home anymore.”
Another group that’s affected by the shortage is local employers. Some are having a hard time attracting essential workers. Borough Manager Steve Giesbrecht says the borough has been trying for six months to fill its Fire/EMS Director position, and several finalists have backed out citing housing as a reason.
“We can bring more workers to town,” Giesbrecht says, “but if they can’t find a place to live, then they can’t move here. So it’s gonna be very difficult to fix the lack of workforce without fixing the housing side of it.”
The borough is looking into creating additional lots that people could build houses on. However, it’s very expensive to extend roads and utilities to new areas. Giesbrecht says, “Generally what we see is by the time the infrastructure is put in place, the value of the lots is so high that people can’t afford them.”
The borough is also interested in creative solutions. It hopes to lease units from the U.S. Coast Guard and make them available for Petersburg first responders. The Borough Assembly on August 29th held a work session on housing, and discussed possibilities like regulating airbnbs, creating tax incentives for rentals, and designating a legal camping area in town.
At the next public meeting on September 6th, councilmember Thomas Fine-Walsh plans to propose an ordinance to allow for tiny homes, accessory dwellings, and multiple buildings on a single lot.
Meanwhile the borough is seeking letters of interest to serve on a housing task force. You can find a link to that information on our website, KFSK.org.