Written by Katie Gannon, Spruce Root Community Development

On a bright sunny day, the former mayor of Yakutat, Ralph Wolfe stands waist deep in the ocean wearing bright orange hip waders and filleting salmon. Yakutat is a Tlingit community with strong cultural and ancestral ties to the surrounding forests, beaches, islands, and inlets. The name Yakutat comes from the Tlingit word meaning “where the canoes rest” and Tlingit people have built their home there for generations. The people of Yakutat, like Wolfe, have built their way of life around their relationship with the lands and waters. The community has developed techniques and place-based knowledge systems that depends on families being able to remain in their ancestral homes. Unfortunately, the high cost of living, lack of adequate housing options, and other factors have led to massive out-migration.

In addition to its cultural ramifications, the out migration caused by inadequate housing was hurts the local economy and education system. With few families and children able to remain in the village, schools face the prospect of shutting down or operating with a serious lack of funding. Wolfe is a Sustainable Southeast Partnership (SSP) community catalyst. With support from the SSP network, he and the executive director of the tribe were able to secure $1,629,000 in grants and partnerships to fund a comprehensive housing project to help families stay in and move back to the community.

The foundation for Yakutat’s housing project was laid during a joint long-term planning session with the tribe, local village corporation, and city government. Together they identified expanding housing quantity, quality, and options as a priority for sustainable development.

The impetus to begin construction came from a partnership with the Indian Health Services (IHS) when the Yakutat tribe applied for an IHS joint venture project for an expanded medical clinic. At the time, the tribe already owned and ran a small clinic in town, but by pursuing a partnership with IHS they had the opportunity to build, fund, and staff an expanded clinic for the next thirty years. The new clinic is expected to break ground in the early summer of 2019 and from there it will take approximately 18-20 months before patients can begin filing in for medical care. Even before the first patients can be seen, the expanded clinic is expected to be a hub of development in Yakutat. In addition to increasing the availability of care, the new clinic will mean fourteen or fifteen new positions for medical staff. In a community of fewer than 600 people, 14 new jobs are significant especially if they attract trained professionals who bring their families to the village. But the increase in population will also put more pressure on an already stretched housing system.

Isolated rainy rural Yakutat is not an easy place to build houses or clinics. Located on the northern tip of southeast Alaska more than 200 miles northwest of Juneau, the nearest major city, shipping costs are high, and with no roads connecting it to other communities, Yakutat is accessible only by air or water. The lack of developed land adds another cost burden; simply connecting a site to the city’s water and sewer system can cost upwards of $40 thousand. Additionally, with an average rainfall of 155 inches every year, Yakutat has a short construction season and skilled workers in specialized trades like plumbing, roofing, and electricity have to be contracted and brought in at a high cost.

Without the hard work and collaboration of Wolfe, the Yakutat Tlingit tribe, the SSP, and other partners around the region, making this dream housing project a reality would be cost prohibitive. By supporting the Community Catalyst position, SSP created the space and support where Ralph Wolfe could focus on leveraging the funds, gathering the expertise and building the necessary relationships to break ground.

With the support of local and regional networks, Yakutat is finding creative ways to move forward. Wolfe, the SSP community catalyst, brought together the tribe and the city government to purchase buildable land for mutual benefit. With the additional flexibility afforded him by his position with SSP, Wolfe and the Yakutat Tlingit Tribe worked with the Tlingit and Haida Regional Housing Authority, and as a result, Yakutat is now on track to complete a building with four separate apartments by the end of June 2019. Additionally, the Yakutat Tlingit Tribe secured a separate $417,000 grant through the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation to build two single-family homes.

A crew of seven people from the community now work full time on construction and there are four experts who visit the village regularly to provide training on technical building components. They are also exploring innovative ways to lower construction costs such as modular construction and prefabricated options. People and organizations from around the region are collaborating to make affordable housing and sustainable development in Yakutat a reality. Thanks to their partnership and hard work, the village has six new housing units and seven new construction jobs, an expanding medical clinic, fourteen professional positions, and four more housing units in the works.

The Yakutat Tlingit Tribe, the Yakutat municipality, SSP catalysts, the local village corporation, and the Indian Health Services have all invested their time and resources to allow families to remain in and return to their ancestral home. Their efforts allow community members to maintain and build upon their relationship to the lands and waters so that the Yakutat people can continue to rest their canoes here for generations to come.