Img 6449
Some apartments at recently-privatized Kuhio Park Terrace are being rented at market rates

How we could remove the barriers to affordable housing

Victor Geminiani

There’s a High Unmet Need for Housing in Hawaii

There is a crisis for low-income residents in Hawaii. Hawaii’s median rent is 50% greater than the national median and 75% of households living in poverty spend more than half of their income on rent. Additionally, Hawaii has the highest cost of living in the United States, but one of the lowest average-adjusted incomes.

Currently, 28,137 units are needed for housing for the population of Hawaii. Studies have indicated that 68% percent of those units are needed for low income individuals living at less than 60% of the Area Median Income (AMI) which is $43,260 for an individual and $61,800 for a family of four. However, this estimate does not include the need for housing among homeless population in Hawaii. The 2011 Homeless Point in Time count found there to be 6,188 homeless individuals in Hawaii, an increase of 6.1% from 2010, the third highest homeless rate in the country. The estimate also does not include the “hidden homeless. A 2007 report estimated that 228,000 persons statewide are hidden homeless or are otherwise at risk of homelessness statewide.

The cost of supporting the multitude of services required to support a homeless individual is approximately $40,000 while the costs to move a homeless individual into housing is estimated to be $16,300, a significant reduction in costs to the state. The state and counties should develop a comprehensive strategy to address and remove the real barriers to building affordable housing for our low and moderate income families.

Current Plans for Building Affordable Housing

The Hawaii Housing Finance and Development Corporation has awarded funding to 11 affordable rental housing projects with currently no estimated timeline for completion. Although many of these projects will not actually be built for a number of years, these projects will only create an estimated 851 units of affordable housing for individuals and families below 80% of AMI.  On an annual basis, only 300-500 units are being produced in Hawaii to satisfy this demand. Almost all “affordable” housing that is being built is targeted at individuals and families earning above 60% of AMI. 

Primary Barriers to the Creation of Affordable Housing

      The primary barriers to affordable housing are readily identifiable and each can be significantly reduced
      and/or eliminated using creative, successful models from initiatives in Hawaii and on the mainland. They

Zoning requirements and building ordinances and codes: Waivers from certain building and density requirements should be expanded and used more aggressively.  HRS § 201H permits affordable housing projects to be granted exemptions from statutes, ordinances, and rules of any governmental agency relating to planning, zoning, and construction standards provided that the exemption does not negatively affect the health and safety of the general public. Certain communities like Kakaako also have ordinances such as HAR § 15-218-55, which permit density increases for buildings developed for workforce housing.

Hawaii has demonstrated almost a complete lack of strong political will in promoting affordable housing.

Land acquisition: Due to the insular nature of Hawaii, land comes at a premium, and is highly subject to speculation. There is state and county land available that could be developed for affordable housing. Costs could potentially be kept down by turning the land into a leasehold and developing affordable rentals. The use of tax incentives for private development of low income rental housing should be expanded. Some states such as Minnesota have had success with incentivizing private owners to convert units into affordable housing to receive a real property tax break, GET and income tax.

Infrastructure: There are two primary barriers to the creation of affordable housing involving infrastructure. The first is the lack of sewage capacity to develop units in many areas that are zoned for residential development. Capacity may be more available in the urban core than in rural areas. The second barrier is the infrastructure required in project units. The more that projects develop commonly used infrastructure (toilets, showers, cooking facilities), the lower the development costs will be.

Nimbyism: Nimbyism can be combated with greater focus on providing the community with information and educate them about the nature of a project. Success has been found in other communities through developers teaming with a community in the project’s planning stages to address community concerns. According to the National Association of Realtors, high-density affordable housing does not decrease property values, and may actually increase them.

Lack of political will: Hawaii has demonstrated almost a complete lack of strong political will in promoting affordable housing. Visible coalitions with supporters of affordable housing are necessary to move forward with the creating of more affordable units.

It is time that our state and county political leaders begin to seriously address the lack of truly affordable rental housing. It remains our state’s most critical problem facing our residents. There are successful models that address each of the barriers. The only real barrier is the failure of political will.