Editor’s Note: Renee Ing is a candidate for Hawaii lieutenant governor.

Homelessness has reached crisis proportions in Hawaii. Neal Milner hit it on the nose in Civil Beat (“Treat Hawaii’s Housing Shortage Like The Disaster It Is”).

We must treat the housing shortage as an emergency — like the Big Island crisis — and that attitude “needs to drive housing policy” with out-of-the-box thinking. 

Land is expensive in Hawaii — a huge obstacle to affordability. The cost of the land under our housing is generally 50 percent to 75 percent of the unit’s total cost. Half the land in the state is government land, and Hawaii already allows affordable housing on leased government land in many locations. When Eric Gill recently asked Gov. David Ige to allow Local 5 to build their affordable housing on state land, the governor was amenable.

Kahauiki Village on Nimitz Highway is a possible model for affordable housing in Hawaii. Courtesy: Duane Kurisu

Building on government land makes it feasible to build enough low-cost housing to make a sufficient dent in the shortage of affordable housing. Only building low-cost affordable housing on practically “free” leased government-owned land can take 50 percent to 75 percentof  the cost of housing off the top.

While crafting housing initiatives, we must remember over half the shortage is faced by those at 60 percent of AMI (earning three-fifths of median income) and below. The 2018 Hawaii Legislature gave $30 million for ohana zones to help alleviate the homeless crisis — and made bold initiatives possible. 

My architect-planner friend, Daniela Minerbi, told me a successful “ohana zone” must be done in conjunction with creating low-cost housing. At first I argued, but now I think she’s right.

Imagine a parcel of state land with an ohana zone at one end. At the other end of the ohana site, low-cost housing is built. When the low-cost units are built the temporary tent city is dismantled and the homeless become residents of a low-cost affordable village.

If the government leases land for $1 a year — Kahauiki Village’s lease on Nimitz is $1 a year — ohana housing can be affordable. If the governor declares an emergency — the way Ige did for Kahauiki — some building codes could be waived for ohana housing. If the city put in sewer and water connections — as it did for Kahauiki — ohana housing can also be quickly built

Using ohana zone money is contemplated for recently homeless Big Island lava refugees. What about those made homeless for other reasons? The father who had a heart attack, or someone who got hurt on the job, couldn’t work, so now they’re homeless — they don’t count?

More Ohana Zones

Creating ohana zones by awarding nonprofits a “master lease” can create ohana zones that succeed. The nonprofit manages and maintains the zone, providing leadership to solidify homeless residents into a community — as we can see happening at Puuhonua o Waianae 

Governments bank land for future use. The governor must have the state compile a complete list of all unused state land — as has been requested by legislators — so the state can put those lands to good use.

But to succeed long term, ohana housing must have provisions ensuring it stays affordable forever (i.e., the state keeps it lease hold forever).

Anything built on government-owned, public land, should be affordable forever. Anything built with public taxpayer dollars — the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit, the Hawaii Housing Finance and Development Corporation grants, etc. — should be affordable forever. Or we re-create the catch-22 of affordable housing continuously reverting to the market — the crazy situation we have today that causes homelessness.

We need to discuss specifics of how to deal with homelessness and our affordable housing shortage.

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