Housing and Community Development in the Arctic Circle – MHP’s trip to Barrow, Alaska

Touching down on the runway of BRW airport in Utqiaġvik, Alaska (the community formerly known as Barrow), we could already tell from the views of ice floes in the Arctic Ocean and mossy tundra that we were in for a new experience. In late June 2021, Warren Kramer, Community Development Director, and Ella Mitchell, Community Development Officer, met with team members of Taġiuġmiullu Nunamiullu Housing Authority (TNHA), a beneficiary through the HUD Rural Capacity Building 2018 grant. After over nine months of working together virtually, the team was excited to meet in person for a week and see with their own eyes what it’s like to work on housing in Alaska’s North Slope Borough.  Utqiaġvik is a community of 4,500+ people and is the northernmost city/town in the US, located north of the  Arctic Circle.

Griffin Hagle, Executive Director of TNHA, graciously picked up MHP staff at the airport and brought us on a driving tour of Utqiaġvik, pointing out TNHA properties and unique building techniques, as well as local landmarks like the tribal college and hospital. A whole range of unique, cold climate construction materials and techniques are used in housing development when building on permafrost.  Construction materials must all be transported by ocean barges to Utqiaġvik from Anchorage.  They say the first $150,000 of housing development cost, per unit, is the transportation costs of the construction materials.  A primary focus of the visit was to finish the strategic planning process we’d started months earlier, with TNHA staff and board members.  TNHA is governed by Board members who represent the six native Alaskan villages TNHA serves. Since there are no roads connecting these six villages, the board members need to fly into Utqiaġvik to participate in board meetings and the strategic planning work.  Dr. Pearl Brower, a longtime Utqiaġvik resident and former president of Iḷisaġvik College, facilitated these meetings, leading the group in team building activities and discussions about the future of TNHA. The final product was an approved Strategic Plan that will guide TNHA’s work for the next several years.

In between sessions, the group enjoyed pastries homemade by very talented TNHA staff, participated in a weekly group walk around town hosted by the Mayor’s office and even caught a glimpse of the annual whaling festival, Nalukataq. Utqiaġvik is a  centuries old whaling village which is still a significant part of the community’s culture and economy.  Some 32 teams of local whalers went out in pursuit of bowhead whales in 2021.  22 of those whaling teams successfully harvested a whale this year.

We were also able to tour a 29-unit apartment built in 1977 that TNHA is in the process of renovating with funding from HUD and other entities. Some other highlights of the trip included a delicious barbecue dinner hosted by Griffin and his wife Kelly, a tour of the NOAA Barrow Atmospheric Baseline Observatory where researchers around the world are tracking weather and climate change data, and a visit to the Iñupiat Heritage Center to learn more about local native history and culture.

While North Slope communities share many housing challenges with other rural and tribal communities in the United States, they also face unique challenges due to their extreme remoteness and unique physical environment. Sustainable housing solutions are a critical innovation need as these communities are directly impacted by the effects of climate change, including tundra subsidence and sea level rise. For example, all housing in the area is built on piers or stilts so that the heat from the building does not thaw the permafrost beneath the home. More recently, sled rails have been added to cap the stilts so that the structure can be moved if the coastline changes and the community must relocate. Energy efficiency measures such as improved insulations, new windows, and electric stoves are also critical improvements because utility costs can be astronomical in the North Slope’s deep winters and indoor air quality during these months can be a major issue. MHP’s successful trip to Utqiaġvik brought these issues to life as staff were able to see in person the real issues and challenges of working in this remote region, as well as the strengths and commitment of our beneficiary up there, TNHA. ~Ella Mitchell