- Special Projects
At some point, perhaps in the next year or two, the 1 millionth person will settle in the urban center of a remote archipelago in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
If that resident is a grown-up, she or he will likely ask a question that many others on Oahu have asked themselves in recent years: How the hell do I find an affordable place to live?
It’s a good question. After all, the median cost of a condo is approaching $350,000, 75 percent of homes sold on Oahu in November went for more than $550,000, and the median home price on the island recently rose to an eye-popping $719,000.
Such prices, which are far out of reach of most salaries on Oahu (and the neighbor islands), trickle down into the rental market, placing many tenants under extreme pressure, forcing some from the islands or into a spiral toward homelessness.
No wonder Honolulu is the ninth-worst large city in American on the affordable housing front, according to a recently released National Association of Home Builders index. (The top eight cities are mostly in extreme real estate markets in high-end California cities, but also in New York.)
Civil Beat reader Roy R. Thompson put it well in his comment on a recent article: “Oahu lacks an entry-level option for people starting out. Either you have the money for a down payment on a $500,000 house and the income to qualify, or you rent.”
Rents are high enough that they — along with the rest of the cost of living — prevent a lot of people from ever saving enough for a down payment.
“Everybody wants the American dream and searches for that … We have to change our expectations.” — HCDA Executive Director Anthony Ching
It all makes for a striking contrast to the national median home price of just $221,000, which looks like an entry-level option far more in sync with incomes in Hawaii. The problem is that for the price of a median mainland home, you couldn’t even buy one-third of a median house on Oahu. Statewide, you could only exchange that mainland home for 40 percent of an equivalent house in the islands.
But what if people in Hawaii could aim for homes worth $221,000, whether for renting or buying?
Yes, something would have to give. On Oahu, to get anywhere near the national mean home price would require making the homes about one-third of the size of those on the market.
Interestingly, the median size for an affordable home in Honolulu is about 750 feet, according to the real estate website Trulia. Micro-housing here is often considered to start at around 250 square feet.
This is the basic logic of micro-housing proposals, whether along parts of the rail line that is under construction or in new buildings in urban areas: smaller homes to fit small budgets. It is also crucial to calls for a denser vision for Honolulu and, to a lesser extent, some other towns in the islands.
And it is key to why the Hawaii Community Development Authority is moving forward with a plan to develop micro-housing that is affordable to people with the sort of low incomes that are prevalent in Hawaii.
As Anthony Ching, the executive director of the Hawaii Community Development Authority explained recently, “Everybody wants the American dream and searches for that.”
But when real estate and rents far outstrip incomes, that model can break down, he said during a meeting with the Civil Beat editorial board. “We have to change our expectations.”
Many people in the islands simply don’t want to greatly expand the population’s footprint.
That leaves two main options. We can build upward, which almost invariably engenders controversy, or we can build smaller, getting back to the Hawaii of a century ago when people’s needs were simpler and they had far less indoor space.
As people familiar with housing in densely populated cities from Boston, Paris and Hong Kong to New York City and Tokyo know, micro-housing doesn’t necessarily mean cheap. It generally means more affordable than other alternatives. In neighborhoods like Soho in Manhattan, people pay thousands of dollars per month for what would be considered micro-housing on the West Coast.
But regardless of whether small housing units are aimed at middle class residents or as a remedy for poor people fending off homelessness, it is worth considering a couple of questions: What does it mean to live small, and is it suitable to people in Hawaii?
If tomorrow’s Honolulu really is going to be increasingly small and urban, it is a future I know well from my years living in numerous studio apartments in New York City and Paris.
I could sit on the toilet while brushing my teeth over the sink. In fact, there was little choice.
Early in my years as a correspondent for Newsweek magazine in Paris, a city with twice the population density of New York City, I rented an impeccably crafted 193.75-square-foot shoe box-shaped studio apartment. It was about the dimensions of four ping-pong tables set side by side. In the water closet-sized “bathroom,” which had a tiny half-shower and a sink crammed into it, I could sit on the toilet while brushing my teeth over the sink. In fact, there was little choice.
I slept on a small futon that I would fold up or climb over to reach the “kitchen.” My minute dining table also folded up, as did my chair and my guest chair. The studio would have been very nice, if it had been a bedroom in an apartment with other rooms, but that’s all there was. When you live so small, you learn that your neighborhood fills in for the non-existent “rest of the house.”
I took the micro apartment partly because it was on a dynamic street loaded with tasty food shops, cafes, bars and restaurants, and not far from a park, so I could meet people out in the world, rather than at my place — where they wouldn’t really fit. Most importantly there was quick public transportation directly to my office.
And there were perks; the studio only took a few minutes to straighten.
There are a lot of cutting-edge ideas for building small these days, especially since the Great Recession.
In addition to charming studio apartments in the densifying city of Seattle, there are cool customized shipping containers, including some very fancy ones. In Hawaii, a group of students even made their own prototype on Kauai. Elsewhere, people have been re-imagining trailer parks.
But the key for a city looking to boost density is that little units be livable — regardless of whether they are for middle-income professionals or poor people struggling to avoid living on the streets.
Hawaii has an advantage over big cities where the weather is harsh. People here are accustomed to spending much more of their lives outdoors, whether at beaches, parks or elsewhere pretty much all year.
“It is all very neatly organized, like Tetris. If I need to get to something, it takes a while.” — A resident of a tiny studio apartment in Waikiki.
On the flip side, though, people who grew up in crowded cities have been trained from early on to get by with little personal space. It made me wonder whether people who aren’t from historic small-apartment cities could ever get used to living in tiny dimensions.
So I tracked down a middle-aged man in Waikiki whose apartment is 185 square feet, which is eight precious square feet smaller than my little studio in Paris. Civil Beat granted the resident anonymity, largely due to his concerns that sharing details about his studio might get him evicted.
In addition to his full-sized bed, he said that his apartment sometimes looks like a well-organized sports shed, given his surf gear, which includes short, long and kite boards. “It is all very neatly organized, like Tetris,” he said. “If I need to get to something, it takes a while.”
The mini studio includes a lanai that is nearly as large as the indoor space. From it, for a few days each year, he can see the sun set into the Pacific Ocean. “But then the sun changes tracks and I lose it.”
For this middle-aged professional, the advantages of small living include not having a roommate, the surf-friendly location, proximity to his work and the relatively affordable rent, which is a little more than $1,000.
The situation has worked out so well in the years since he moved there, he said, that he is interested in buying the studio to customize it.
But after our lengthy initial interview, he sent a text message to say that part of the reason he wants to remain anonymous, in addition to his fear of being evicted, is that he is a little embarrassed to live in such a small apartment. “I feel ashamed of my little place,” he wrote.
Issues of housing pride are more like a luxury for thousands of people who are simply in desperate need of housing they can afford.
The plentiful data on human pain and hardship linked to housing in Hawaii includes a Department of Housing and Urban Development estimate that the homeless population jumped 18 percent between 2010 and 2014, with nearly 7,000 likely living without a home now.
Nearly 12 percent of households in Hawaii are multi-generational, which is double the national average. It is also one of the numerous signs that many people can’t afford to live on their own here.
Things have actually gotten worse with rents rising fast, median incomes for low-and middle-income renters stagnant or in decline, and the state failing to keep up with demographic growth, much less satisfy pent-up demand.
Multiple estimates count the need for additional housing units in the tens of thousands for the coming years, with the majority of those people on Oahu.
One of the families embedded in those statistics belongs to Ray Fetui, a 25-year-old father of four young children. When I met Ray in September he had recently moved off of the streets of Kakaako. We initially spoke less than 100 yards from his family’s former sidewalk encampment, as young children played in the street nearby.
Fetui, who had clear, vibrant eyes, had recently moved into a nearby shelter with his family, including a newborn.
When I called him back recently to get his thoughts on micro-housing proposals, he said his family is now at a shelter in Waianae and that he continues to find odd jobs, while his wife works part time.
Given their circumstances, I asked Fetui what he thinks of some micro-housing concepts and proposals.
“Honestly, I would pick something smaller, if I could,” he said. Absent micro-housing, Fetui said the minimum rent for his family of six would be close to $1,000. “Who could afford that?” he asked.
“In the situation I’m in, being homeless and having four kids, a small place I could afford would change a lot of things after being on the street for four months. You can say, ‘This is my home,” rather than being on the street with people’s noise, people’s drug use.”
Kevin Andrews is the president of Blue Star Steel Corp., a company that works in China but that has an office in Waimanalo, where he is based. Blue Star Steel designs and produces modular houses that are, in some cases, as little as 10-by-12 feet. Pitched in Hawaii as “Ohana cabanas,” they are less than half the size of the smallest micro-housing units under consideration.
Those shed-like measurements were selected, Andrews said, because they avoided permitting requirements on larger structures in people’s yard at a time when the city and the state weren’t as engaged in finding small solutions to the housing crisis.
The company makes substantially larger modular homes in China, and expects to soon begin producing for the Japanese market, said Andrews who had a rough time convincing politicians to go with the concept of cheap and plentiful mini homes on Oahu nearly a decade ago.
What remains of the company’s efforts in Hawaii are 15 very small cabins that were built as prototypes amid discussions with the administration of then-Gov. Linda Lingle. The idea, Andrews said, was to remedy a burgeoning homeless crisis situation where “you can’t go to work and earn $10 an hour and be able to get anything.”
Speaking generally, Andrews said that small housing is increasingly in sync with people’s needs, especially given that many salaries remain beneath pre-recession levels. “There is certainly a down-scaling of people’s footprints right now.”
He remains convinced that, in addition to building smaller units in apartment buildings, Hawaii should experiment with construction of very small homes.
“You can use an old-style way of construction … There is land all over the place that isn’t being used for anything. We could try it for five years and if it doesn’t work, we’ll move it.”
If there is no success with micro-housing and other efforts, the moving may not involve little houses; it may involve people leaving islands they can no longer afford to live on.