Hawaii’s housing crisis is the abiding moral and economic challenge of our time — home prices are increasing faster than incomes. The number of people confronting housing insecurity is on the rise.

April Estrellon/Civil Beat 

But we don’t need to look at the numbers to understand how rapidly the situation is deteriorating. All we have to do is talk to our family, friends, and neighbors.

Some are sharing their homes with other families to cut housing costs. Others cannot find a place to live anywhere near their jobs.

Most alarmingly, people have left the state partly due to the unaffordability of owning a home and the high cost of living, and almost all of those impacted by the housing crisis are working people. They are our nurses, our firefighters, our small business operators – folks with decent jobs, who earn good wages — but struggle to find a home.

Stable housing is the foundation for a strong middle class. If we don’t fix this, Hawaii will be a playground for the rich and the people who work for them, pricing out future generations from staying in our state.

87 576 kulaaupuni Street housing in Waianae.
The state of Hawaii needs about 50,000 more housing units by 2025, of which 17,000 are housing for the working class. Pictured is housing along Kulaaupuni Street in Waianae. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

But, there is reason to be hopeful. For the first time in recent history, Hawaii’s elected leaders at the federal, state and county level are joining forces to attack this problem.

According to the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism, the state of Hawaii needs about 50,000 more units by 2025, of which 17,000 units are housing for our working class individuals. This is not an insurmountable task.

The coalition we’ve built is historic. We are determined to meet the housing crisis with the seriousness of purpose it deserves.

What To Do

First, we must stabilize home prices, which tend to be inflated due to the investment market. Many in Hawaii cannot compete with outside investors to purchase homes and condos beyond their economic reach.

On the contrary, leaseholds are less attractive to investors and speculators. We have tasked a state agency to identify publicly owned properties that can be used to develop 99-year leasehold units, which will be reserved for affordable units.

Leasehold sales will ensure that the homes will be reserved for local residents, bringing prices down well below the median and making them affordable.

Second, the government should focus on land and infrastructure. We cannot do everything. But the state is the largest landowner, so there are plenty of opportunities to align our housing goals with our development plans and get more bang for our buck.

That is why the state has committed $200 million in general obligation bonds to defray infrastructure costs (such as roads, sewers and electricity) for the development around the first two rail stations in West Oahu, which includes housing.

Homebuilders say the cost of infrastructure makes projects cost-prohibitive. This provides a great incentive and will jumpstart construction and expand the number of affordable, available homes on the market.

Third, we have to make the process work better. Whether it’s state, county or federal regulations, the combined impact of these rules and laws make it extremely difficult to get houses built.

This flawed patchwork allows luxury developers to hire “permit expeditors” to jump the line, or bill the borrowing costs associated with the delays into their unit prices, while those building homes for local people cannot afford the additional expense.

Housing really is the biggest obstacle we face for a better Hawaii.

With input from the counties, laws will be changed to reduce regulatory barriers in the Land Use Commission and State Historic Preservation Division to accelerate housing development.

But none of the above can be achieved unless we work together and trust each other. To succeed, we cannot have the same old fights. This cannot be about development versus the environment.

We cannot compartmentalize between low-income housing versus workforce housing. This cannot lead to communities not allowing development. Housing is a statewide problem, and we must all come together to resolve it.

Our ambition must be equal to the size of the challenge. Housing really is the biggest obstacle we face for a better Hawaii, and no individual project, or pilot program, or grant to a nonprofit will fix it alone. We have to think big and act accordingly.

Reversing current housing trends and ushering in structural reform will not be accomplished in a single legislative session. We must work on a sustained basis at scale to repair the system from the foundation up.

As we move forward, everyone has a role to play: public officials, labor unions, the business community, the media, newly energized progressives, and environmentalists. We all have a stake in ensuring that Hawaii is, and will continue to be, our home.

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