Does Hawaii have the political will to solve its affordable housing crisis?

That was the question that underscored many of the discussions at Saturday’s housing conference sponsored by the nonprofit group Faith Action for Community Equity, or FACE.

The event featured Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell, who gave the keynote speech to a packed auditorium at the Hawaii State Capitol. The day was filled with numerous panels on topics ranging from affordable rental housing to transit-oriented development.

Downtown Skyline

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Here are a few takeaways:

Honolulu needs more rental housing.

A 2011 Hawaii housing study found that more than 15,000 rental units are needed by 2016, but Mayor Kirk Caldwell said Saturday that only one 204-unit rental housing project, Halekauwila Place, was built in Honolulu last year.

The mayor emphasized that his new islandwide housing strategy would target the greatest housing need by encouraging developers to build more low-income rental housing units.

Cathy Camp of Kamehameha Schools said the organization has been working to provide more affordable rentals through projects like the recently renovated Kolo Place, and Race Randle from Howard Hughes Corp. said the company is planning to develop a new rental project in Kakaako.

Despite those efforts, demand still far outstrips supply.

Developers say they need land and money to build low-income housing.

Stanford Carr, whose company developed the 204-unit low-income rental project called Halekauwila Place in Kakaako, said that at a minimum, developers need a subsidy of $100,000 per unit to build for people earning 60 percent of area median income or below. (That’s $40,260 for an individual or $57,480 for a family of four.)

Emphasizing the difficulty of financing affordable housing projects, Carr said he hasn’t yet received any money from Halekauwila Place and doesn’t expect to until February.

“We haven’t received a dime yet,” he said.

Gordon Chin, an affordable housing advocate from San Francisco’s Chinatown Community Development Center, agreed that taxpayers need to support low-income housing for it to become a reality.

“It needs to be a public commitment with public money,” he said.

Delays in Hawaii’s permitting process make it harder to meet the housing demand.

Claudia Shay, executive director of Self-Help Housing Corporation of Hawaii, said it once took her seven years to get the permits needed to build an affordable housing development.

Hawaii’s complicated permitting process is often frustrating for developers, especially when they are building low-income housing projects that rely on multiple funding streams.

Director of Planning and Permitting George Atta hypothesized that perhaps some applications are held up because DDP has inexperienced staff members who need more training. But he didn’t seem to really know why the process takes so long.

“I don’t have a good answer,” he said.

If nothing changes, more Hawaii residents will be priced out.

James Fitzpatrick, a community organizer with FACE, said he only sees his brother at Christmas or Thanksgiving since his brother left the islands to live somewhere more affordable.

“We have become tourists in our own neighborhoods,” he said.

It was a familiar refrain at Saturday’s conference — the story of family and friends being forced to leave Hawaii because of the high cost of living.

Drew Astolfi from FACE said the lack of affordable housing in Hawaii means that many people who grew up here are struggling.

“We won’t have a local identity anymore if we don’t deal with this,” he said.

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