Few people seem to embody the laid-back Bohemian beach-bum lifestyle that outsiders associate with Hawaii more than Sonny Silva.

The 62-year-old graphic artist rents a compact studio apartment on the “Gold Coast” of Waikiki. During the day, his Murphy Bed folds into a cabinet, leaving room for him to move around without tripping over his three surfboards and the guitars that he plays in his “gypsy jazz” band, Hot Club of Hulavilla.

What shatters the illusion of Silva’s carefree existence is the amount of work he takes on running his graphics manufacturing company, Fleet Street Integrated Branding, to pay the bills. The primary personal cost is the $2,000 he pays to be 30 feet from the ocean. Silva’s “gross rent” — which includes utilities — absorbs about half of his after-tax income.

“I work very hard. I work all kinds of hours and do crazy things,” says Silva, who wonders how much longer he will be able to continue climbing up and down on scaffolding to build visual installations.

Dressed in a backward scally cap, the sexagenarian adds, “I feel like I’m in a rat race on a treadmill.”

Sonny Silva sits in his 350-square foot rental apartent unit located at 2987 Kalakaua Avenue. Honolulu, Hawaii. 13 november 2014. photograph by Cory Lum. for Eric Pape's story.

Sonny Silva, who lives in a small fifth-floor studio apartment on Kalakaua Avenue, is one of the many people in Hawaii who pay well over one-third of their income on rent.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Risky Business

The specifics of some of Silva’s spending decisions might seem a little risky for a man approaching retirement, but he is representative of many people in the islands who spend more of their income on rent than is good for their financial security and their future.

He enjoys a good salary — about $4,600 a month after taxes — but lives in a neighborhood where the price per square foot is particularly high, making him one of the 46 percent of renters in the state who pay more than 35 percent of their income in rent. (Florida and California are the only states where a larger percentage of renters put up with such pressure.)

If the rate of construction permitting holds for the rest of 2014, it would mean Oahu authorizes the fewest new housing units of any year since 1944. — Paul Brewbaker, economist

That 35 percent bar may sound like some random numerical fixation of statisticians, but financial experts say it can be risky to cross that threshold.

And it is part of why, according to a recently released study by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, 45 percent of renters in Hawaii are “financially fragile.”

That means they are, generally speaking, “more prone to income shocks” and more likely to have insufficient or non-existent health care coverage that leaves them far more vulnerable if they endure a sudden loss of income or emergency expenses.

This can translate, the authority’s National Financial Capability study says, into people “falling behind monthly bills, using risky forms of credit, missing a rent payment or, possibly, eviction and homelessness.”

In other words, it leads to circumstances and pressures we frequently see playing out around us throughout the islands.

Are Our Rents Really So High?

Hawaii is, generally speaking, a great place to invest in a home or condo — if you have the means. Property taxes are low, by percentage, compared to most of the mainland, and real estate values seem to invariably rise over time. Renters, on the other hand, frequently tighten their belts to pay the mortgages — or into the savings — of their landlords.

In 2013, Hawaii had, by far, the highest median monthly gross rent in the nation, $1,414. That is nearly 50 percent higher than the national average. (The closest state is California, where median monthly rents are about $175 cheaper.)

On Oahu, the epicenter of Hawaii’s housing crisis, the fair market rent is more than $1,800 — more than double the median rent for a two-bedroom place in Portland ($775). It easily surpasses cities like Berkeley ($1,493) and San Diego ($1,600).

Median rents in Seattle are substantially more at $2,300, but the average monthly disposable salary there, after taxes, is 32 percent higher, according to the cost of living comparison site, Numbeo, and utilities are far less expensive, especially electricity. When such factors are calculated in, the real cost of renting in Honolulu is higher (and the overall cost of living in Seattle is substantially less expensive).

View of buildings near Piikoi Street and King Street areas featuring walk up apartments. ERIC PAPE STORY. 13 NOV 2014. photograph by Cory Lum.

These walk-up apartments near the Piikoi Street and King Street area are part of why Hawaii has far more renters and fewer owners than the national average.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The bad news about rents in Honolulu and across the state isn’t limited to how much people pay. Hawaii’s high rents weigh more on locals than they do for renters on the mainland because substantially more people in the islands are tenants (44 percent) than the national average (36 percent).

And if the recent past is any indicator, the situation is likely to get worse before it gets better. Hawaii’s rents have long outpaced the national average. Between 2005 and the end of 2013, the average rent in the islands rose by $236 — which is five and a half times the pace of increases nationally, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.

If incomes kept pace or even caught up with rising rents, the subject might not be worthy of attention, but the trend is going in the other direction. In 2005 rent consumed just over 20 percent of Hawaii tenants’ household incomes. That has since risen to 25 percent, U.S. Census numbers show.

Why Is the Rent So Damn High?

The primary reason for high rents, as economists, real estate agents and developers in the islands all agree, is simple: a lot of people want or need housing, and there just isn’t that enough of it in their price ranges.

There isn’t much agreement about exactly how much more housing Hawaii needs, but experts say the islands need a lot. The Hawaii Housing Planning Study, completed in 2011, calculated that during the five-year period between 2012 and 2016, the state needed to add as many as 50,000 units to keep up with growing demand from demographic change. Since just a fraction of that housing has been built, the situation has only gotten worse.

Eugene Tian, the state’s top research and statistics officer, has cited a lower, but still large number this year, saying that Oahu alone needs to add 3,525 units annually, and that the state should add a total of 5,340 each year to keep up with need.

All indications are that Hawaii isn’t coming anywhere close to that level of new housing, and that it won’t anytime soon. In the first three quarters of this year, Oahu green-lighted 754 new housing units, putting it on pace for about 1,000 new units for this 12-month period, according to numbers supplied by Paul Brewbaker, the former chief economist at the Bank of Hawaii who now runs TZ Economics.

If the rate of construction permitting holds for the rest of 2014, it would mean Oahu authorizes the fewest new housing units of any year since 1944, according to Brewbaker. “The World War was their excuse,” he said, “What’s ours?”

Experts in housing say that the answer includes complex and sometimes out-of-date construction rules that are out of sync with the state’s needs, the difficulties of producing profitable housing at below-market prices, a painfully slow permitting process and the inability to convince enough residents that more development is the way to respond to the housing crisis.

That failure has been most prominent in Kakaako where efforts to increase population density have met intense grassroots opposition.

“We can’t change geography, the boundaries of the oceans and the boundaries of mountain watersheds,” Brewbaker said. The answer is density, he argues, which means people living closer together and in better coordination. “If you were seriously intent on lowering housing costs… You have to make building density possible.”

The dense concrete jungle of metropolitan Honolulu. 24 nov 2014. photograph cory Lum

Critics point out that parts of Honolulu already feel like a concrete jungle.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Charles Wathen, the executive director of the Hawaii Housing Alliance, says there is no magic wand to cure Hawaii’s crisis. “The free market is not going to solve this. As long as we have high-regulated, limited supply, it is the government’s responsibility to mandate policies.”

One alternative, Wathen says, would be to “unregulate and let it be like Houston” — where developers have much greater freedom —  but that’s unlikely to be palatable to most residents.

Instead, the government could ask the homeowners and big developers who benefit from rising real estate values to pay more in real estate taxes, with the money going toward funding housing for people who have been priced out of the market, he suggested.

It is one of many diverse and sometimes contradictory proposals inspired by budding awareness of the housing crisis, but it leads to a question…

Can Rents Be Affordable in Hawaii?

Asked whether it is possible to bend the curve on rents in Hawaii, an almost-pained look passed over the face of Anthony Ching, the executive director of the Hawaii Community Development Authority. Then he gathered up his optimism and told Civil Beat’s editorial board, “I think the answer must be ‘yes.'”

Ching spoke of large areas in Kakaako where there is almost no residential population and where there could — and, he believes, absolutely should — be. “There is lot of room to have housing units. If you do that efficiently, you could get a lot of bang for your buck,” he said.

“The expectation, and the reality check, is that housing costs will never be cheap again.” —Anthony Ching, executive director of HCDA

To further respond to the housing crisis, he said, it would also be necessary to urbanize the outskirts of Honolulu, make Kapolei more dense, and make similar strides elsewhere. “Building smart, I am obliged to be optimistic.”

Optimistic, but not certain.

The question isn’t really about whether Hawaii, and especially Oahu, could theoretically respond to its housing crisis. It could.

The real question is one of will — are residents and leaders willing to accept the tradeoffs and will developers, investors and legislators buy in. A natural follow-up question is about whether efforts will prove to be effective.

Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell is driving a flurry of proposals that may or may not ultimately generate accessibly priced “for-rent” notices at some point in the future. And even if they do, it is far from certain that there will be enough new rentals to alter the trends of recent years.

Ching’s optimism in Civil Beat’s offices included a caveat. “The expectation, and the reality check, is that housing costs will never be cheap again,” he said. Not even, he added, on the North Shore.

Downscaling

That’s not good news for the many multi-generational families that live in a single house — Hawaii is tops in the nation when it comes to families doubling and tripling up — because they can’t afford to rent their own.

It won’t have much impact on a late-in-life bachelor who lives solo, like Silva, who is throwing his income into a rent hole instead of preparing for his fast-approaching golden years.

“I think, ‘Wow, a lot of people my age have been able to retire, but not me,’” he said.

Unlike many other people, he does have an out. He inherited a small apartment — and the mortgage associated with it — several blocks away that he rents out to cover its costs.

At some point, he knows he’ll have to downscale to a more conventional life in that apartment and hopes he’ll be able to make ends meet on social security and any savings he can put aside in the coming years. If he can’t, he could always sell that little apartment, and rent another one.

For now, though, he plans to continue working from his office — and on elevated scaffolding — for as long as he can — to stay ahead of “the tax man and the landlord.”

Here are five troubling infographics that detail Honolulu’s housing crisis.

Join Civil Beat’s Facebook group on the cost of living in Hawaii to continue the conversation and discuss practical and political solutions.

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