“They screwed us,” is how Michelle Ichikawa put it.

Ichikawa is a renter at 7000 Hawaii Kai who, much to her surprise, is soon to become a former renter.

Only two years after the building opened, its owners have decided to convert all of the market-priced rentals to condos.

7000 Hawaii Kai opened with much hype and a lot of promise. It was the first privately owned rental development built in the last ten years.

More than 200 units in 7000 Hawaii Kai Drive will be converted from rentals to for-sale units. Anita Hofschneider/Civil Beat/2018

There are a number of three-bedroom units. The building allows pets, offers storage space, and has good schools in the neighborhood. All of these made 7000 especially attractive to people like Ishikawa.

But in not much more time than it took the tenants to get cable connected, the building’s developers decided that, oopsy daisy, rentals were not profitable after all.

Huge surprise, the building’s owners have put a happy face, a real happy face, on this.

“The last thing we want to do is tell them, ‘Hey, you’re evicted,’” CEO Christine Camp said.

Ichikawa and the other tenants are victims of the state’s awful shortage of affordable housing, which, according to a recent study, is the worst in the U.S.

But that really understates the problem. We need to use a different language to understand just how serious it is.

We need to use the language of disaster.

Those tenants at 7000 Hawaii Kai have suffered a sudden anticipated shock that has made them extremely vulnerable. They will soon be displaced persons, more like refugees of a flood or a volcano than just a victimized renter.

In fact, their situation is a disaster that needs to be managed as the Kilauea volcano eruption is being managed.

Calling housing a disaster is not just a rhetorical flourish. It’s a methodology.

People in the disaster management field deal with man-made disasters as well as natural ones like the Big Island volcano.

Michelle Ichikawa will soon lose her home due to a condo conversion, but there are no emergency services awaiting her. Anita Hofschneider/Civil Beat

Michelle Ichikawa has begun a process of shock, vulnerability, and displacement. Those are pillars of disaster management.

So the perspectives and practices of disaster management clearly apply. Two good things come from taking that approach to the housing problem.

First, seeing this as displacement better highlights the severe physical and psychological costs of losing your home. As Matthew Desmond shows in “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City,” losing your home is a crisis associated with depression, suicide and a traumatic sense of rootlessness and rejection.

Second, viewing the lack of affordable housing as a disaster intensifies a sense of urgency leading to out-of-the-box thinking.

A disaster is the opposite of business as usual. Dealing with a disaster gets priority over everything else.  Everyone from politicians to regular community folks have to go above and beyond and be given every opportunity to do so. It requires a crisis response that opens new doors and finds ways to overcome the usual roadblocks to getting things done.

Temporary housing for eruption evacuees has been erected in Pahoa on the Big Island — an example of what we can do when we go into emergency mode. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

The Big Island volcano response is a case study of how all these elements of disaster and response come together.

It’s a tragic story, sure. But the Big Island response is also an uplifting story of community, initiative and responsive government.

Building an essential makeshift road, creating new forms of temporary housing, loading livestock threatened by the lava into trucks, all of these are driven by an approach to problem solving that says, “we need to find a way even if, maybe especially if, we have to bend the rules.”

This year’s Legislature allocated a fair amount of money toward affordable housing. Gov. David Ige is clearly on board.

But be honest now. Don’t you worry that this is more of the same, and that the affordable housing problem, which nationally is getting more serious and less manageable, will outstrip these solutions?

And of course, in Hawaii business as usual means Tony the Tortoise.

2475 North Nimitz Hwy Housing/shelters with Nimitz viaduct at right.
Kauauiki Village on the Nimitz Highway was built quickly because the normal rules were suspended. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Enough with the cynicism. Here is a real life, very recent Hawaii example of successful disaster-driven housing.  It involves Kahauiki Village on Nimitz Highway for working homeless families, but the lessons apply to affordable housing in general.

It began as an idea of Duane Kurisu, a successful local entrepreneur, who took the lead in making the project happen. Before you read his description of the process, think of the way government typically works here. Kurisu wrote:

We set up an informal partnership with key members of the city and county administration and continued to meet regularly to help navigate bureaucracy, interpret building code issues and state and city laws on the fly, and coordinate our responsibilities. This team enabled the design/build process to move so quickly that we sometimes had to ask the city to slow down!

Asking the city to slow down. I’ll give any of you a free month’s rail ridership if you can say that about any other government project.

There were all kinds of disaster management-like problem solving and workarounds. The state leased the land for the project for virtually nothing. The project used Ige’s emergency declaration, allowing for building certain housing without obtaining building codes.

The city agreed to put in water and sewer connections, as well as a new bus stop.

And there were no construction contracts, just handshake deals.

Kahauiki is unique. Almost three-quarters of the costs were covered by donations of cash, materials and labor.

But the energy, drive and willingness to solve problems in new ways should definitely carry over.

The sense that we face a disaster and need to confront it in disaster terms needs to drive housing policy. There is no evidence either here or nationally that business-as-usual affordable housing policies are working.

The usual blah blah blah about long-term affordable housing goals, subsidies, incentives and tax exemptions is what you are supposed to be hopeful about if you believe in the powers of rational, incremental policymaking.

That’s like relying on a regularly scheduled meeting of the Big Island City Council’s planning committee to stop the lava.

Kahauiki Village is an example of the good things that can happen when we get out of our zone and recognize a disaster when we see it.

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