Editor’s Note: Please say aloha to our new Kauai columnist, Brittany Lyte. Brittany has lived on Kauai for three years where she has been reporting on local issues for Hawaii and national publications. For more information on Brittany, see the box below.
ANAHOLA, Kauai — Frank Cummings gestures across the dusty lawn at a neighborhood built on land held in trust for Native Hawaiians. Many of the driveways host four or five parked cars.
An overcrowded driveway, Cummings says, is a sign of an overcrowded house — a subtle but significant emblem of Hawaii’s affordable housing crisis, the burden of which is disproportionately felt by the state’s indigenous people.
“We’ve got 41,000 acres of homestead land on this island and we’ve got two, three, four generations of families living in one house,” says Cummings, 63. “It’s ridiculous.”
Cummings, a board member of the Anahola Hawaiian Homestead Association, hopes to change this predicament. He is the foreman on a team of unskilled volunteer laborers working to build a tiny home on the Anahola homestead.
The 480-square-foot house is a pilot project of the statewide Homestead Housing Authority geared at reducing homelessness and quickening the pace at which beneficiaries of the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act move off the waitlist and into a home of their own — one they can reasonably afford. In Hawaii, the average price of a home tops $600,000.
The one-bedroom model home at AHHA’s Anahola Marketplace on Kauai’s east side is projected to cost between $75,000 to $85,000, with monthly payments as low as $650. The price tag includes everything from the foundation to the labor — except for a septic system.
Brittany, who has lived on Kauai for three years, is originally from upstate New York. She has a degree in journalism from Boston University and worked for a number of years for Hearst newspapers in Connecticut. In pursuit of a good story, Brittany has learned to fly an M-26 Air Wolf and chased down a suspected killer while wearing heels and a silk dress. On Kauai, Brittany has a particular interest in stories about the people and places that make the island’s agrarian lifestyle unique.
The prefabricated houses can be assembled in six to eight weeks without need for a contractor. User-friendly assembly is key to building affordable housing in rural areas like Kauai, where finding a contractor for low-cost housing projects can be difficult, according to project organizers.
“Your average tiny home is conventional stick-built, and that means you better be a contractor and you better know what pieces are what,” says Homestead Housing Authority Executive Director Robin Danner.
“A big contractor surely isn’t going to take on that kind of a project because they are looking for big subdivisions and big hotels, and small contractors are few and far between. But with this prefab model, you don’t have to have the construction experience. You just follow the directions and put the thing together like Legos.”
The tiny home arrived in Anahola July 6 in a 40-foot shipping container. It took 18 hours for a crew of volunteers to fully enclose the structure. Volunteers are now putting in the finishing details — cabinets, countertops, flooring and appliances.
From an $1,800 crane rental used to hoist up the metal trusses to each can of paint applied to the walls and crown moulding, every expense is being documented. The goal is to create a turnkey tiny home package that homesteaders will be able to own in 15 years.
“We don’t want to make it available to families until we are comfortable that this could be done on someone’s lot and we know exactly what the cost is going to be and we know exactly what the experience going to be,” Danner says.
“Are we going to be frustrated or are we going to be amazed? It’s a pilot to help us decide whether we want to bring this to market. So far, our expectations have been met. It’s been a lot of, ‘Wow.’”
The prefab home kit is manufactured in China. It was co-designed and imported to Hawaii by Mark Elwell of LiveWell Hawaii Modular Homes in Honolulu. The home is structurally sound with steel beams, insulated walls and a 115-mph wind rating.
“It’s a home that offers dignity instead of a container home that doesn’t really seem like a home at all but just a shelter,” Elwell says. “This is a real home, and you feel that. I mean, honestly, it’s gorgeous.”
A report on the housing needs of Native Hawaiians published in June 2017 by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Office of Policy Development and Research found that the need for affordable housing is especially great for the 29,000 Hawaiians who are on the waitlist for a homestead lease.
Another barrier: In order to move off the waitlist and onto a vacant land lot, a family must prove to DHHL that it can pre-qualify for a loan of $250,000 and build a home within a year. Many families can’t meet this demand.
“So many guys go through the application process to get their own land award and they get denied because they can’t prequalify for the $250,000 loan and then they go right back on the list,” Cummings says.
“It’s a cycle, and some guys have been through the cycle three times. That’s why we have people living with the parents and the kids and the grandkids.”
The tiny home, which can be downsized to a studio apartment, can be built on a homestead lot with an existing residential structure to alleviate overcrowding. Alternatively, it can be assembled as the primary structure on a new land award.
So far, our expectations have been met. It’s been a lot of, ‘Wow.’ — Robin Danner, executive director of the Homestead Housing Authority
The project is timely as the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands is in the process of awarding vacant and turnkey lots to beneficiaries in the Piilani Mai Ke Kai subdivision, located across the highway from the pilot.
If successful, the housing authority would expand the pilot to homesteads on other neighbor islands.
Apart from the sale of the home, the housing authority plans to offer financing. Through a partnership with the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement, home buyers could apply for a loan in the amount of the home price with CNHA’s loan fund.
The Homestead Housing Authority has not yet decided whether it will pursue the tiny house project, but if it does the project would mark the first non-profit development program focused on Hawaiian Homelands.
“I’ve seen governor after governor after governor try to solve affordable housing by forming a task force of for-profit developers,” Danner says. “That’s like asking a meat eater to be a vegan. Let the for-profit developers be the capitalists that they are — I don’t blame ‘em and I don’t want to change ‘em — and let’s really grow our non-profit developers.”
“We are anemic in this state to nonprofit developers, and that’s where the affordable housing of the future is going to come from.”