Tear down Anchorage’s malls

Anchorage’s malls are dying. Let’s put them to good use.

If you’ve been to the Dimond Mall lately, you’ve probably noticed things look a bit different than it used to.

Mall traffic has slowly petered out over the past five years, even during the holidays. When stores close, vacancies are more likely to remain unfilled. Recent closures like Perfumania will certainly add to the deficit in mall activity.

More kiosks are occupying the mall — likely because its cheaper than renting space from a building that’s losing tenants and customers faster than it can keep up with.

The new Dave and Buster’s has helped offset the decline, but even the country’s largest adult arcade can’t fight the incoming tide of the online retail industry. Companies like Amazon now account for nearly half of e-commerce sales. Higher living costs and unprecedented student debt is squeezing the wallets of young consumers. Consumer habits are shifting towards experienced-based purchased, rather than material products.

As a result, malls are quickly becoming obsolete. It’s estimated that half of America’s malls will be closed by 2023. Anchorage’s malls will be no exception. The Midtown Mall nearly saw it’s doors close for good before big-name stores like REI saved it. Even outside the mall, Alaskan chain outlets are struggling to maintain a profit.

Alaskan shopping trends often defy national ones, meaning there’s a chance Anchorage’s mall culture will hang on just a while longer. But it’s only a matter of time before malls like Dimond and 5th Avenue become emblematic of America’s ghost malls.

We can choose to mourn the job losses that will follow, which will surely hurt families who relied on work at the mall. Or instead, we can choose to see the inevitable death of Anchorage’s malls as an opportunity to build something better: public housing and services for lower-income individuals.

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In Moorestown, New Jersey, declining mall’s are being repurposed for low-to-moderate income housing units, which will connect disadvantaged communities to nicer schools and allow them to live closer to their places of employment. The Northgate Mall in Seattle is looking to tear down large sections of abandoned property and add housing units as well.

Obviously, not all cities are the same. New Jersey and Seattle have different needs than Anchorage, and we can’t assume all housing policies should look the same. But it’s clear that Anchorage would benefit from a larger supply of affordable housing, especially after a statewide assessment by the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation reported that the state needs to double its housing units each year to prevent overcrowding within the next decade.

It’s also necessary to create housing opportunities that are affordable and safe. The same report noted that Alaska’s housing is in some of the worst physical conditions, especially for tribal areas. But even in Anchorage, the spectrum for housing options is relatively meek. Opportunities that are somewhat affordable are worn down, aged and in need of repair. Low-income residents struggling to make rent have to make painful trade- offs like selling off assets, taking up multiple jobs, reducing spending on the things they need or worse. Not only does that dramatically affect the quality of life, but it slows down economic productivity when people are focusing all their energy towards putting a roof on their head.

Those that can’t afford a place to live are forced to live in homeless camps, hop houses with friends and relatives or leave the city. If you live in a homeless camp, you might be subject to eviction by city officials thanks to measures passed by the city Assembly. Sweeping up the homeless and chasing them around the city is hardly proving to be a sustainable solution for homelessness, because it doesn’t treat the reason as to why people become homeless in the first place.

Those causes are complex and intersectional, and more housing isn’t going to solve all of them. But research suggests it goes a long way towards giving both the homeless the tools they need to get back on their feet. Utah dramatically reduced homelessness when they began giving homeless residents a place to live, counseling to deal with mental illness and drug addiction and resources for them to get back into the job market. Homelessness dropped 72 percent between 2005 and 2014, and the state saves roughly $8,000 per homeless person in annual expenses. The program, called Housing First, was floated by Mayor Ethan Berkowitz years ago, but as per the statewide assessment, clearly not enough is being done.

Coming around full circle, Anchorage’s rapidly declining malls and shopping centers offer an opportunity to bring policies like Housing First to fruition. To do so, we should work to phase in development units by repurposing large, vacant stores and turning them into mixed-income public housing units. It may be difficult, but the livelihoods of those unable to find a safe place to live supersede the need to keep dying shopping centers alive.