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Expensive Groceries And Health Care Contribute To Unalaska's High Cost Of Living

unalaska late spring
Berett Wilber

Housing is not the main culprit for Unalaska’s high cost of living. That’s according to a survey conducted by the City of Unalaska's Planning Department.

Through the national questionnaire from the Council for Community and Economic Research, Unalaska’s cost of living index was 7th overall – behind Manhattan; Nantucket, MA; San Francisco; Honolulu; Brooklyn; and Washington DC.

For Planning Director Bil Homka, the results were an eye opener.

“These other costs kind of snuck up. Even though we thought we were high, who would have thought our groceries came out to be the highest index of all the communities in the survey as well as healthcare,” Homka said. “Of the six indicators, we’re in the top three in the country for five of them.”

Two hundred sixty-seven communities took part in the survey which aims to provide a reasonably accurate measure of living cost differences in urban areas.

The survey compiles the costs of specific items — like a teeth cleaning or a bag of potato chips — and then weighs them based on consumer spending patterns.

Housing was the only index Unalaska did not rank in the top three. The city came in 33rd.

“I’m glad we weren’t first because then I think people would have wondered, what kind of resort community is this?” Homka said.

The survey provides concrete data that Alaska is an expensive place to live. Healthcare costs were the highest in Unalaska, with Juneau, Fairbanks, and Anchorage rounding out the top five.

But Homka says the data doesn’t provide comparisons to other rural Alaska communities – places that don’t have weekly air and cargo shipments.

“I’m certain that there are other smaller communities like us, all over Alaska – that if they were part of this study, would have even higher expenses,” Homka said.

While the survey has its shortcomings, Homka will use the numbers as a baseline. He says they give him a better understanding of what factors contribute to the costs of living in Unalaska.

City Manager Thomas E. Thomas will use the data when negotiating salaries. He wants to be sure that city employees can afford to live and stay in Unalaska.

“We’ve had people move here and say oh that salary’s great and then they get here they realize this is not what I expected,” Thomas said. “We’ve had people leave after a few months because they didn’t factor in things.”

At this point, the planning department is considering continuing the survey twice a year.

Homka says the results will be used to inform projects including the city’s Comprehensive Plan update.

Zoë Sobel reported for KUCB from 2016 until 2019. She returned to KUCB after a year living in Nepal and Malaysia as a Luce Scholar. She then returned to KUCB as a ProPublica reporter August of 2020 through August of 2021.
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