It’s been nearly 30 years since an affordable housing project has been built on Lanai, where workforce housing is in short supply and families sometimes bunk together to keep a roof over their heads.

A decade ago the county came up with a plan to develop more than 400 affordable units on the outskirts of Lanai City. But the county appeared to abandon the project in 2015 because of the high costs to build sewer and water lines to service the undeveloped property. 

Now the long-stalled plan to create homes for low-income residents is getting new momentum, and a county councilman says the project is closer to fruition than ever before.

Lanai homes Pine trees. 13 april 2017
Like everywhere in Hawaii, a deficit of affordable housing is squeezing out Lanai’s workforce. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“I want the county to invest in this town,” said Maui County Councilman Gabe Johnson, a freshman councilman who lives on Lanai and chairs the county’s affordable housing committee. 

“It’s always been this old adage of, ‘Let the billionaire do it,’” he said. “But these folks are voters. They pay their taxes. And they need some kind of return.”

Last year a new affordable housing project was proposed by Pulama Lanai, the management company that oversees billionaire tech mogul Larry Ellison’s ownership stake in this island of 3,000 deeply-rooted residents. Ellison owns 98% of the island.

Maui County Councilman Gabe Johnson said there is new momentum to get a long-stalled county affordable housing project off the ground. Gabe Johnson

The company plans to develop 150 rental homes in a subdivision to be called Hokuao, and just over half the homes would offer affordable rents.

Pending government approvals, construction of the $115 million project could begin next year, according to a draft environmental assessment.

Residents earning 80% to 140% of the area’s median income would be eligible for the rentals, priced as low was $965 a month, according to estimates in the draft environmental assessment.

Since Hokuao is planned for a parcel that neighbors the lot reserved for the county’s housing project, Johnson hopes that the complementary developments can share some of the infrastructure costs to overcome the major economic hurdle that halted the county’s previous attempt to develop affordable housing for Lanai residents.

A cost for the county project has not been determined.

In a statement, Pulama Lanai said Hokuao’s location, and the infrastructure that would be constructed for the project, would potentially help lower the infrastructure costs for Maui County’s planned affordable housing development on the adjacent parcel of land that was deeded at no cost for this purpose almost 30 years ago.

“Completing (Hokuao) would bring the infrastructure closer to the property line of the proposed county project site,” according to a government report on the project. “This could potentially benefit the county project by bringing down the cost of the infrastructure.”

The two proposed housing projects are complementary, not redundant, according to Johnson, because they would meet different needs. 

The Hokuau project does not provide a pathway for renters to purchase the affordable units, whereas Johnson said his vision for the county’s revived project is to help low-income residents attain homeownership.

Johnson and his team plan to launch a three-day housing survey on July 28 on Lanai to gather data about resident housing needs. 

The councilman said surveyors will go door-to-door and ask questions about people’s income and whether they would like to rent or own a home. This data will then be delivered to Mayor Mike Victorino’s administration so that it can be incorporated into a request for proposals from developers. 

Johnson said he has already identified a nonprofit developer who’s potentially interested in taking on the county affordable housing project.

“There’s tremendous demand for a place to live that people can afford,” Johnson said. “The workforce is getting priced out. The time is now.”

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by a grant from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.

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