In an era when median salaries are stagnant and the overall price of paradise in the islands continues to rise, the cost of living can feel downright oppressive.

It led a local family to flee the islands on economic grounds and a devoted schoolteacher to spend nearly a year living out of his truck. It made residents who have been here for decades choose relaxed golden years thousands of miles away over a vulnerable retirement on Oahu. It can reduce people worth a million bucks or more down to fairly standard middle-class consumers. And it can redefine the traditional middle class’ economic dreams to just staying afloat.

For many people in the islands, as I’ve written, incomes are too low and the rent is too damn high. It can be easy to conclude that policymakers are impotent in the face of this crisis or just don’t care enough to respond.

So it is nice when there are signs of progress — and there are.

There’s the temporary respite offered by cut-rate oil prices that have driven down the cost of gasoline at the pump and, to a lesser extent, electric bills. (Enjoy such prices while you can.)

But the nascent signs of momentum on the affordable housing front are ultimately more significant. Nothing will happen overnight — or soon enough for many families overburdened by the housing crunch — but there are indications that progress is possible. (Housing, for myriad reasons, is the largest cost in most people’s lives, which is why it has been a key focus of our series on the cost of living.)


Shipping container housing in Flagstaff, Arizona.

Flickr: Angel Schatz


The city and the state seem increasingly open to innovative low-cost housing responses to the crisis; solutions that have already been put in place elsewhere. These include housing made from storage containers, other forms of micro-housing and the opening up of accessory dwelling units — known as ohana housing — to non-familial renters.

“I think the paradigm is really changing here,” Small Homes Hawaii owner Craig Chapman told me recently.

This is the first time he recalls witnessing the city, county and the state all moving forward to meaningfully address the lack of reasonably priced housing. For once, he said, “No one is really raising objections — other than safety issues, and we can respond to those.”

The most recent movement has been on the city level. A City Council resolution that encouraged Mayor Kirk Caldwell to develop a model project to see if shipping containers can be successfully adapted as low-income housing, passed the Public Health, Safety and Welfare Committee on Tuesday.

Such housing is already legal, but it generally faces the same infrastructure requirements as traditional homes, which sharply increase costs and negate the main reason for building it. City Council Resolution 15-17 would nullify some traditional land-use and building approval steps that don’t relate to safety.

“It is not putting lipstick on a pig … When you look at these, you can’t tell this is a can.” — Small Homes Hawaii owner Craig Chapman

It would also call on the Caldwell administration to submit a list of possible locations where such a project could be situated. Discussions have even involved the development of residential parks. (If they get over the stigma, they could even call them mobile home parks.)

“I think that (the lack of political) will has a lot to do with why we have not seen a development of small modular homes in a park-like setting,” Jean Lilley, the executive director of the Hawaii Habitat for Humanity Association, says.

That seems to be changing. The mayor is working with the nonprofit Faith Action for Community Equity, or FACE, as well as members of the council on a range of alternative housing proposals, including allowing shipping container lodging as accessory dwelling units in the yards of traditional homes.

This is significant. A big part of the blockage up until now, according to Chapman, has been not-in-my-back-yard sentiment. In short, a lot of people don’t want their neighborhoods — or their property values — to be dragged down by some modern version of “trailer trash.” Local opposition to experimental projects has appeared to play a key role in preventing their creation.


A small MEKA shipping container that has been adapted into a prototype model home.

Flickr: Inhabitat Blog

Chapman and many other advocates of storage-container, modular, pre-fabricated or other forms of low-cost housing have long argued that a well-crafted test site is crucial to popularizing building techniques that are used elsewhere.

The City Council’s resolution notes that shipping-container homes already exist in wealthy countries like Australia, Britain, Canada, New Zealand and the Netherlands. The resolution specifically highlights the Downtown Eastside development in Vancouver, which “provides homes for women escaping homelessness or unsafe housing.”

Such homes, the resolution notes, are strong and durable. The materials are also readily available throughout the islands. And aesthetically, a little searching around the Internet shows, some of them look far better and more solid than much of the housing around us on Oahu.

“We can make our units look like a very quaint plantation village and exceed all building codes in doing it,” said Chapman, who noted that a covered lanai “with nice pickets out front” and smart landscaping helps to make such homes fit in.

Many other people are working on prototype shipping-container homes in the islands and elsewhere, from bare-bones constructions like this one in the UK, to more charming homes all the way up to remarkably elaborate houses and apartments.

Faith Action for Community Equity (F.A.C.E.) displays a house with two rooms with two bunk beds made using a shipping container parked on the mauka side of Honolulu Hale. 3 feb 2015. photograph Cory Lum

Faith Action for Community Equity displays a simple, small model two-room container homes next to Honolulu Hale on Feb. 3, 2014. It contains a pair of bunk beds.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Some of the designs for small shipping-container homes already built in the islands include space for a garden on the roof, a European-style wet bath, a kitchenette with a refrigerator and microwave, and — sensibly — a Murphy bed.

“I’ve been building these out of cargo units for 15 years,” Chapman said. “I built them to do the acid test, to see whether they would be acceptable on first sight, and hold up over time.”

A common 40-foot container offers 320 square feet of space, although other common sizes for container housing include everything from 160-square-foot compartments to 480 square feet and beyond. The units are, he said, up to federal codes and sell for about $30,000.

“It is not putting lipstick on a pig. This is good, basic construction that will last a hell of a long time, have low maintenance, and it won’t have termites or rust,” said Chapman. “When you look at these, you can’t tell this is a can.”

In January, the Hawaii Public Housing Authority also put out a request for concepts from developers — for a multi-floor prefab modular lodging, micro-units, shipping container housing or other — for a mixed-income and mixed-use house complex on North School Street. The state could pay financial support for each low-income unit built.

If the resolution passes, the pressure will be on the mayor to find a place where a demo site can be built. It will likely be a long haul and there would surely be many obstacles to overcome.

Kevin Andrews, who tried — and failed — to get the state to sign on for a number of alternative housing projects on Oahu over the last decade, noted that proponents need to generate momentum from a broad enough swath of actors to help guarantee that there will be movement. But, he noted, “Land is where it starts.”

If the city does end up searching out and finding a test site, some of those old storage containers could, once retrofitted, be on the move again.

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

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

Do you have a compelling story about the human impact of the cost of living, whether about you or someone you know? If so, drop me a note at

About the Author