Econ 919 — More housing for Nikiski seniors
Towering windows in the Nikiski Senior Center look out onto the loons and lily pads of Marie Lake.
The center’s main space, with its vaulted ceilings and massive stone fireplace, is a centerpiece of the lakeside property and of the North Road community.
But the two smaller structures next to the main building, containing eight senior apartments, are the center’s hottest ticket. You can see them from Sasha Fallon’s office window.
"They face the lake. And then this is all grass," she said, pointing to the area between the apartments and the water. "I just got a grant to build a pavilion, a large pavilion.”
Fallon is executive director at the senior center. And she has a knack for finding grants.
That's coming in handy as she looks for funding for a new set of housing units right across from the current ones, to meet a slice of the ever-growing need for senior housing in the community.
"I’ve been here a year and a half and not a day goes by that we don’t get questions about housing," she said. "When are we building more units? How much does it cost? When are people going to move out?"
The Nikiski Senior Center has a 34-person waitlist for its apartments.
That’s not a uniquely Nikiski problem. There are waiting lists to get into the apartments at the Kenai Senior Center, too. A Homer nonprofit, Kenai Peninsula Housing Initiatives, reports high demand for low-income senior housing on the Kenai.
"Across all of the peninsula, every senior center stated that housing needs are high," Fallon said. "It’s the top of the list.”
The Kenai Peninsula as a whole has a growing senior population. The unincorporated area of Nikiski is no exception. In 2010, there were an estimated 440 Nikiski residents age 65 and up, according to the Alaska Department of Labor. Today, there are nearly 800.
Out the road, the proximity of the center's housing to the center itself is attractive for some seniors, as is affordability. Many seniors rely on fixed incomes. The apartments at the senior center are $750 for a one-bedroom and $850 for a two-bedroom.
Plus, maintenance in the Nikiski apartments is covered.
That’s one of the reasons Bernie Titera is hoping to move in. She's a member at the center and goes often for lunch and classes.
"We’ve been on the waitlist, I would say, probably eight months," Titera said.
Titera said last time she checked, she and her husband were 17th on the list.
“My husband and I are pushing our 80s," she said. "So our energy level isn’t quite the same as it was when we were in our 50s. And having a place to live that does not require a kind of maintenance just sounds really good. Because we live out on that lake right now and we have a large front yard. And there’s a lot of maintenance to our lifestyle.”
Titera doesn’t want to move out of Nikiski to find a new place.
But she is worried about living on a big property as she develops health issues. And she said if the need to downsize becomes too great before they get off the waitlist, she and her husband might have to consider living elsewhere.
Paula Bute and her husband aren’t at that point yet. But they want to be ready when they are.
Two years ago, they put their names on the center’s list.
"We have no intention of moving into their apartments," she said. "We are still healthy enough to stay in our own home. But because we knew the waiting list was so long, we thought we’d just get on the list just in case the time comes when we can’t live here anymore. And we need something a little simpler.”
The new apartments will open the door for more seniors like Titera and Bute to move in. Jeff Laube, a member of the center’s housing committee, said they'll be similar to the existing units, factoring in accommodations for a host of accessibility needs.
Fallon knows several more units won’t solve the senior housing shortage in its entirety. She hopes to keep adding units onto the property even after the new ones are finished, pointing to a parcel on the other side of the center.
First, she's looking for funds.
That’s one of the challenges for the Nikiski Senior Center specifically, Fallon said, since it doesn't get money from any city. It gets some annual funding from the borough, but it can't use that money to cover maintenance and construction of new houses. Can't use borough dollars to cover construction.
Fallon said they rely on grants and donations for projects like these. That’s where her grant-sleuthing skills come in handy.
“I was able to find a grant to pay for Nelson Engineering to do our plans and schematics," Fallon said. "That alone was $64,000. And so I’m trying to apply for little grants to get the septic system done, clear the land, get the foundation poured. All those little parts and pieces, so that when the construction comes — which will be a large chunk of money — we’ll be ready. And I can find funding hopefully for that.”
Funding willing, Fallon hopes to have the new housing units at the senior center completed by fall 2023.