The exodus from Alaska continues; the long-running recession lingers; and Anchorage witnessed the biggest growth in new residential construction in five years.
Go figure. State Labor Department economist Neal Fried said he doesn’t know what to think.
Is it possible to grow while shrinking?
Well, maybe. Residents of the tiny Central Alaska community of McGrath several hundred miles north of Anchorage on the other side of the Alaska Range mountains have been joking for years about the community’s footprint steadily expanding as the number of residents steadily creeps down.
Home to more than 500 people in the 1990s, the old refueling stop for Lend-Lease pilots flying aircraft to the Soviet Union during the Second World War is down an estimated 316 hearty souls, a 30 body drop from the start of the decade.
But the population which once clustered tight along the Kuskokwim River is now spread out along 15 miles of road.
Crazy as it might sound, Fried thinks something similar could be happening in Anchorage as record low mortgage-interest rates encourage citizens in Alaska’s largest city to scale up and spread out.
It appears, he said, that “more million dollar homes than ever were built in Anchorage this year.
“This is happening all across the country.”
The phenomenon isn’t everywhere, but it is out there.
“Second Homes Are Driving the U.S.’s COVID-19 Building Boom,” Barron’s headlined in November, citing a 24 percent October surge in home sales nationally.
Construction was up enough to cause problems in some locations. Lumber was in short supply in Anchorage at times this summer, and Newsweek reported that a national trend as Americans purchased new homes and “months-long quarantines enacted throughout the country caused a spike in do-it-yourself projects.”
There is no readily available data on second home sales in Alaska, but given Alaska is one of the best places in the world to vacation in the summer, there is no reason to believe the state wouldn’t follow the national trend.
Local real estates prices are reported to be up 5 to 6 percent in keeping with The Economists reporting on rich world conditions.
But Fried cautioned that “it’s not like we have a booming housing market” in the 49th state, noting that a significant part of the increase is clearly tied to a construction market that has been depressed since oil prices began slumping years ago.
“We had very slow growth in our housing market for a long time,” he said. “We didn’t build a lot for a long time.”
Some old housing in the market needing replacement, and some people homebound by lockdown clearly decided it was time for something new or better. The result was more of building spurt than a boom.
Still, even a spurt in home construction in an economy in recession and struggling with the pandemic is rather unpredictable.
“It is weird,” Fried said.
Labor last week reported the state’s population “decreased by 3,048 people – 0.4 percent – from July 2018 to July 2019. This was the third straight year of decline for the state’s total population, which peaked at 739,649 in July 2016 and stands at 731,007 as of July 2019.”
Anchorage was the state’s biggest population loser, but its housing market might have been helped by a continuing increase in old folk. The number of Alaskans 65-and-older went up by almost 5 percent while the state population was going down.
Once the youngest state in the nation, Alaska has been steadily aging over the decades. With a median age of 34.6, it is now second behind Utah at 31 and fast closing on Texas at 34.8.
All indications are that the demographic trends continued into 2020 as tourism – Alaska’s largest employer, especially of the young – took a big economic hit due to the pandemic although there, too, there were some twists.
Fried noted that his son, who had been working in the tech industry in California, moved back to Alaska when it became obvious the days of work from an office would be on hold indefinitely.
“He works remotely here,” Fried said and has tried to entice former coworkers north.
There is a lot of speculation on what the pandemic push to working from home will mean long term. Some places have tried to boost their economies by promoting remote workers.
Finland, a European leader in tech, in November announced a “90 Day Finn” program promising those who qualified “a free, 90-day Helsinki relocation package.” The offer came at a time when the Scandinavian country was also boasting one of the lowest COVID-19 death rates in the world.
“Finland has seen a surge of interest in applications for residence permits from abroad in the past six months, following a wider global trend of the tech industry expanding away from traditional city hubs such as Silicon Valley, as tech workers search for a better quality of life,” Business Finland claimed on the prnewswire.
“Birthplace of Nokia, the SMS and 5G, Finland is technology superpower and leader in cybersecurity thanks to its active cooperation between public and private sectors,” the pitch boasted. “Salaries remain competitive with roles in IT amongst the highest in Europe.”
Alaska is no tech superpower, but Fried noted it does have a very high quality of life for those interested in outdoor recreation and offers a refuge from global warming. Climate models predict Juneau will become more like Seattle and Anchorage more like Juneau as the planet continues to warm.
The state has, however, done nothing to sell that image, and it is at this time not in the interest of Alaska residents to promote the state. The Alaska budget remains heavily dependent on oil royalties and taxes, the latter of which have crashed as oil prices have fallen.
The result has been annual state budget woes, and those are not helped by new residents demanding services in a state with no sales or income taxes to force new immigrants to help pay for education, health care, law enforcement, roads and more.
Which is not to say Alaska won’t once again become attractive to young people as it was in the 1970s.
“Are we going to benefit or not?” Fried asked. “It’s an interesting question with this whole remote working shift. Will Alaska be a beneficiary? I’m not sure yet.
“We lost a lot of jobs last year (2020) – 8 or 9 percent. It’ a deep recession.”
But younger Alaskans don’t seem to be panicking about it the way some older Alaskans have, and the psychological influences on economies can be huge.
The views of those who were in Alaska in the ’80s are colored by the oil crash of that era, Fried said.
“It caused a lot of economic trauma,” he said. The housing market collapsed. Condominiums were left empty all over the city. Neighborhood shopping malls were boarded up. The people who lived through the period were left extremely nervous.
Fried was one of them and say friends from that time now regularly ask him “should I sell my house now?” But that doesn’t seem to be a majority view.
“Most people arrived in the last 20 years and know nothing about it,” he said. “It’s a good time to sell. So maybe it’s a good time buy. Because of things like this, i’m not willing to predict” what happens next.