It is becoming increasingly clear that Hawaii needs many more affordable rentals ($1,000 a month or less). The homeless population grows every year.

Forty-eight percent, nearly half, of Oahu’s residents are ALICE — assets limited, income constrained, employed. Basically, ALICE residents are one disaster away from being out on the street.

So what to do?

I believe that one of the main drivers of our housing crisis is the high price of land. To build affordable rentals, land costs must be minimized. Hence, public lands. Public lands are the least expensive to build on.

Aloha Stadium aerial Aiea HART Rail aerial.

There is room at Aloha Stadium for 25,000 to 30,000 units of affordable rentals.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

So here is some good news:

There are three kinds of public lands that are now, or have recently become, available: 1) Department of Hawaiian Home Lands, 2) Aloha Stadium and the Oahu Community Correctional Center, and 3) transit-oriented development near the rail stations.

DHHL: This is an agency that has a large portfolio of public land (granted the land is only for those with 50% or more Hawaiian blood). Let’s build affordable rentals for native Hawaiians. Approximately 28,000 of them have been waiting, some for a very long time, for a chance at a homestead and a house. If DHHL wants to build fee simple homes, that would work as well. But let’s get people in homes ASAP.

Aloha Stadium / OCCC: These are two large pieces of public land that could be sites for affordable rentals. Aloha Stadium is about 100 acres and the OCCC site is about 16 acres. There is room at the Aloha Stadium site (with no parking because of the nearby transit options) for 25,000 to 30,000 units of affordable rentals. OCCC could accommodate 4,000 to 5,000 units of affordable rentals. Together, these two sites would be half of what Oahu needs in the next 10 years (estimated about 65,000 rental units).

TOD near the rail stations: We’ve heard the term “workforce housing” thrown around quite a bit over the last decade. The area around the rail stations (half a mile radius) could accommodate high density housing for rentals (200 units per acre). If 10 of the 20 stations built rentals for residents, we would have approximately 1,000 acres for re-development.

Say a fifth of that is for housing (about 200 acres) — 200 times 200 is 40,000. Theoretically, those 40,000 units would be over half of the need for Oahu affordable rentals. These numbers seem awfully high, given the current government priorities. But a clear mandate for increasing affordable rentals would make the numbers realistic.

So how to pay for any or all of these projects? I see three possible solutions:

  1. The Singapore model: take a small percentage of every paycheck and put that money in a dedicated housing fund. When the worker finds a unit to rent, the money in the fund plus the interest would be used to pay the security deposit and first month’s rent.
  2. Increase the conveyance tax on properties selling for $1.5 million and up. Use the increased taxes to fund a dedicated affordable rental fund which would be used only for building rental units on public land.
  3. Create an agency like the Legacy Land Conservation Commission that would be funded at about $82 million a year. That money would come from what is now the Hawaii Tourism Authority. Abolish the HTA and give the money to this rental housing agency.

We need housing more than tourism promotion. Hawaii is probably the best branded vacation destination on Earth. Do we need to keep branding ourselves when 99.9% of tourists know about Hawaii?

This commission would have one representative from each island and some people who know about funding housing projects. The commission would decide each year which projects to fund, given its $82 million budget. This would be enough to fund at least one, maybe even two, of the above solutions.

These solutions don’t stand a chance in hell of being realized unless people push hard for them and elect decision makers who support building as many affordable rental units as possible for low- and moderate-income residents. Please talk to your elected officials at both the state and county levels to make this a reality. Mahalo nui.

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