Interior housing on track to meet demand from F-35 arrivals
Interior Alaska leaders believe early concerns have been quelled over the ability of communities around the Eielson Air Force Base to comfortably absorb the pending influx of thousands of personnel to the region linked to the arrival of two F-35 fighter squadrons.
Fairbanks North Star Borough Mayor Bryce Ward said in an interview that an analysis of the housing market around the Fairbanks-area base combined with the building activity he’s observed give him confidence that finding homes for the roughly 3,300 people about to move to the area won’t be a problem.
Ward was formerly the mayor of North Pole, the closest city to Eielson, and also has his own general contracting business there.
He noted that the Eielson Air Force Base Regional Growth Plan commissioned by the borough and published last fall concluded there would be a need for 532 new housing units around North Pole by 2022 to meet normal growth as well as the F-35 driven demand.
The federal government’s study of the impacts of locating two squadrons of F-35s — 54 in total — at Eielson found there would be a need for 974 units to house F-35-related personnel and their families.
The first F-35 is scheduled to arrive at Eielson in April 2020 with the rest following over about two years, according to a spokesman for the base.
Eielson Public Affairs Officer 1st Lt. Kitsana Dounglomchan wrote via email that a small number of personnel dedicated to the F-35s have already started arriving and the number of new personnel and their families will keep ramping up in preparation for the first aircraft in less than a year.
While the Air Force is spending approximately $550 million to prepare the base for the hi-tech, fifth-generation fighters, new base housing is not being built. Dounglomchan said the Air Force is relying on the homes currently on the base as well as the local communities to support the new personnel.
“To build the numbers that they were talking about would’ve been a huge undertaking,” Ward said.
However, the Air Force’s study presented raw figures and did not account for the specific conditions of the borough’s housing market.
State budget cuts and the related three-year statewide recession have led some folks to leave the borough, which has led to more available housing, Ward said. The area also went through about 10 years of a depressed housing market — the combination of the Great Recession and multiple rounds of discussions about shrinking Eielson drastically or outright closing the base.
The new stability in the market has encouraged builders, he said.
There were more than 100 housing units built in the borough last year beyond what is normally built during a summer construction season, according to Ward, who added there has been increased activity by developers from outside the area, mostly in the multi-family realm.
“We exceeded the number of units that we needed to build last year in order to meet our objective and I think we’re on target again for this year to be a very productive year for housing,” he said.
Fairbanks Economic Development Corp. CEO Jim Dodson thinks the community will be able to absorb the new residents without a problem, “but it might not be in the North Pole area,” Dodson said.
Upwards of 80 percent of current Eielson personnel that live off base reside in the North Pole area and its presumed the new arrivals will similarly want to live close to work.
Dodson and Ward both said most new home construction, particularly around North Pole, has been small developments.
“Guys that normally build one house (per year) are maybe building two or three a year. We’ve got lots of mom-and-pop type outfits,” Ward said.
Because there is now little worry of a housing shortage, borough officials are focused on making sure the new homes are built to a standard that people want to live in, Ward said, adding that it’s a perpetual issue across much of Alaska.
“A lot of our efforts have been driven to address the issues of quality and efficiency and to really make sure that the market is able to address those concerns,” he said.
The quality of the construction is of particular importance because many of the new active-duty personnel will be coming from warm-weather bases that already have F-35s such as Luke Air Force Base in Arizona, and they likely won’t be prepared to deal with an Interior Alaska winter in a poorly constructed home, Ward emphasized.
He stressed further that he’s actually more worried about too much building once all the new members of the community are settled given the early talk about needing nearly 1,000 new housing units to meet the demand.
“A couple hundred homes is a big number for us but for some of these larger contractors they could throw up 100 houses in a summer pretty easy; that could be detrimental to the overall economy and the housing market if you overbuild,” Ward said.
Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].