Wrangell rentals in seasonally short supply
When their Plan A for housing fell through, the seven-member Bosdell family pitched Plan B in Shoemaker Park.
Plan B was a three-room tent. Plan A had been to buy property at Olive Cove, but at the last minute, the deal fell through, Victoria Bosdell said. The Bosdells pitched their tent in hopes that it would be a short-term stay. The tent eventually became home to Shannon, Victoria, Jeanne, McKinley, Lief, Tyler, Hawkeye, two dogs and a cat for slightly more than a month.
While some might envy the back-to-basics simplicity of life in a tent, the experience quickly became trying for the family. Hawkeye, who is just old enough to stand up on his own, started to cough. Jeanne Bosdell developed pneumonia and ended up in the hospital.
Showers were taken at the laundromat and Wrangell Parks and Recreation’s pool facility.
“We would go like a week without a shower because it still costs money,” she said.
Desperate, they applied for a two-bedroom apartment, though that would have been cramped quarters for seven. The landlord instead offered a Front Street house near Rayme’s Bar instead, and they jumped at the chance. Even so, the three-bedroom house has required some adjustments. Shannon and Victoria sleep in an improvised bedroom with Hawkeye. The pets have been relocated to other homes.
“It works well because everybody gets their own room,” she said.
The Bosdells’ experience illustrates, if anecdotally, the difficulty new arrivals in Wrangell sometimes face in finding housing, particularly in the spring and summer months when new permanent residents compete with seasonal workers.
Statistics provided by the Alaska Housing Authority indicate Wrangell and Petersburg, measured collectively, have a 5.6 percent vacancy rate according to an annual survey of the private market. That collective number is slightly lower than that 6.2 percent vacancy rate reported statewide in spring 2014. Numbers from the previous year show a 7.9 percent vacancy rate in the Petersburg-Wrangell area.
That might seem like a large swing, but the relative size of the housing market means the percentage might not tell the whole story, said Daniel Delfino, a planner with the Authority’s Anchorage office.
“It seems like a rather healthy market from a statewide perspective,” he said. “One of the challenges with those types of communities is, we’re dealing with fairly small numbers, so any variation can create a huge percentage swing one way or the other. That’s why we try to combine those communities.”
The survey results also reflect April numbers and may not take into account the seasonally variable nature of the Southeast housing market, Delfino said.
“We have a consistent methodology, but the consistent methodology also hits at some of the seasonal points of the year that influence these markets,” he said.
Overall in Southeast, a one-bedroom or two-bedroom unit is particularly hard to find, as demographics change over the years and they are in higher demand, according to Delfino.
That jibes with what local housing authority officials are seeing on the ground, said asset supervisor Greg Wood, who oversees Authority’s Wrangell properties.
“The five percent is pretty typical of what I’ve experienced for the last year or so,” he said. “It hasn’t been any greater than that. The trend that I do see is that it does tend to follow seasonal employment... So starting back, maybe as long as four years ago, the trend I’ve seen in the rental market is that typically by April things are starting to tighten up, fewer rentals available. By the end of May, it’s tough to find a rental in Wrangell.”
When the season ends, more inventory is available as seasonal workers depart for other parts of the state and nation, Wood said.
Public housing wasn’t an option, Victoria Bosdell said.
“We did not do that,” she said. “We both work and we’re both capable, and we believe that that’s for people who can’t work.”
Despite the initial difficulty, the family feels privileged to live in Wrangell, Victoria said.
“My husband’s from Alaska, and we wanted to move back, but we wanted it to be a small fishing community because he wanted to fish, and we just happened to pick Wrangell because it doesn’t get too cold in the winter,” she said. “It’s just a privilege to have a place downtown and not have to pay an arm and a leg to get to it.”
Pet-friendly rentals were difficult to find, which was surprising, Victoria Bosdell added.
“In this town everybody has a pet, but nobody will let you rent with a pet,” she said.
Shannon and Tyler have since been able to find work fishing. Tyler is working a purse seiner, and Shannon is working a fishing tender in hopes of saving up enough money to buy a commercial fishing license for the following season. Leif will return to school away in the fall, and McKinley will start at Wrangell High School. Victoria is working at Alaska Waters to help cover rent. Hawkeye had trouble learning how to crawl in the tent, but now has started taking his first steps.
The experience with the tent has changed them somewhat, Victoria Bosdell said.
“People have asked us to go camping,” she said. “I was like ‘I don’t think so.’”