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Honolulu’s Department of Land Management on Monday unveiled the Farrington Highway affordable housing project, a 16-unit mobile home community in Waianae.
It is in essence Oahu’s first trailer park.
It’s also the latest project built to house the homeless under Gov. David Ige’s emergency proclamations that authorize the using of experimental building methods to address Hawaii’s high construction and permitting costs and get units up as quickly as possible.
Other projects built under the same authorization include Kahauiki Village — prefabricated homes originally intended to be emergency housing for tsunami victims assembled along Nimitz Highway— and the shipping containers-turned-apartments in Kailua-Kona on Hawaii Island.
The small living units provide homeless families more stability than they might find in shelters or on the streets, but it is unclear how long people will live in them.
Unlike living in an emergency or transitional shelter, residents who move into these housing projects are not counted as “homeless” in the state’s annual homeless survey. Still, they are expected to use the homes as a stepping-stone to housing on the free market.
Rep. Sam Saturo Kong is designing a modular housing project he wants to put in Pearl City and characterizes the units as “not transitional, more like temporary permanent.”
High land costs, cumbersome permitting processes and the stigma of “trailer trash” mean projects like these in Hawaii would not pan out without government assistance and an exemption to zoning regulations.
Typically, a county building department must approve all aspects of a project before the developer can start building. Under Ige’s emergency proclamations, construction and permitting approval happen simultaneously.
“That essentially said you don’t need any state or county permits and that usually takes a long time and a lot of money,” said Mel Kaneshige, the project developer for Kahauiki Village. “That was a huge relief.”
The units at Kahauiki Village were originally used as emergency shelters for those left homeless after the 2011 tsunami and earthquake in Tohoku, Japan.
The doors are so narrow they don’t meet building codes, but Ige’s proclamations made it possible to use the units anyway, said Kimo Carvalho of the Institute for Human Services. The social service nonprofit offers case management to tenants.
The proclamations also take care of liability if the structures do not comply with building codes spelled out in the Revised Ordinances of Honolulu or International Building Code, said Russell Wozniak, an architect who designed the city’s Farrington Project.
“No architect or engineer can ever say they’ve ever done a project like that. It’s crazy,” he said.
Even with waived zoning laws and cheaper building materials, the city pitched in $4 million to build infrastructure for Kahauiki Village, and the state leases the land to developer aio Foundation for just $1 per month.
The Farrington Project cost the city about $5 million.
“If you had to consider (that) you had to get that paid back to you, you could never run this and help people that are at the 50 percent area median income,” said Sandra Pfund, director of the city’s Department of Land Management.
To live in Kahauiki Village or the Farrington Project, tenants must be formerly homeless families with children under 17 referred through the islands’ Coordinated Entry System, a database that ranks homeless people according to their needs.
Nonprofits at each housing project deploy case managers who help tenants increase their income. The caseworker might help someone get a scholarship to return to school or get a job.
The idea is people will climb the economic ladder and eventually afford market rate housing (the median rent for a two-bedroom unit in Honolulu is $2,100). The units they vacate will then open up to other homeless people.
The rents, $900 month for two bedrooms and $750 for a one bedroom at Kahauiki Village, and slightly higher rents at the Farrington Project, cover property management and caseworkers.
Carvalho of IHS refers to the units at Kahauiki Village as “starter homes.” But homeless advocates say expecting tenants to eventually move out might not be realistic.
Providing stable housing without the expectation of leaving would allow tenants to focus on other issues that plague low-income communities, like access to healthy food and education, said Ryan Kusumoto, president of Parents and Children Together, a nonprofit with programs for low-income families.
PACT runs a day care at a nominal fee for tenants of Kahauiki Village.
Kusumoto also worries what the complex will look like 10 to 20 years from now, given that property managers rely on low rents and grants for maintenance.
Even with government funding, the state struggles with the upkeep of its large public housing complexes built decades ago.
Wozniak, the architect and engineer who designed the mobile homes projects in Waianae, said mobile homes will hold up as long as the city and property managers maintain them.
“The materials that were used are as good if not better than your standard residential house,” he said.
The state is already looking for vacant state land to develop more modular housing projects and lawmakers think the administration should move quickly to get units up.
The current draft of the state budget bill includes $30 million for “ohana zones,” an ambiguous term for areas with substandard housing and supportive services for homeless people.
The Senate Committee on Human Services approved three measures Monday that aim to proliferate these “homeless villages.”
“Right now we have a lot of people living on the side of the highway with no infrastructure, vulnerable to being run over” said Sen. Laura Thielen at a joint meeting with the Water and Land Committee discussing House Bill 2014, one of the three measures. “What’s the problem with moving them to another location?”
Trailers from the Farrington Project would be too expensive for the budget outlined in HB 2014, which requires units to cost $15,000 or less.
Some lawmakers have expressed interest in domes that look like igloos being used by a The First Assembly of God in Kaneohe. Each dome, which costs about $11,000, offer residents a bedroom, and two domes are being retrofitted for shared bathrooms with showers, sinks and toilets.
Affordable Portable Housing Hawaii owner John Rogers sells steel modular homes and container homes to customers on the Big Island for about $120,000 for a 1,000 square-foot house.
Rogers has already sat down with Hawaii County officials to share his design for homes made from grain silos. Each unit would be a studio with an indoor kitchen and bathroom, costs about $30,000.
He’s one of a few tiny homes developers in Hawaii vying for inclusion in the state and counties’ shift toward modular homes for the homeless.