Is Honolulu Really Planning For Affordable, Livable Housing? - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Luciano Minerbi

Luciano Minerbi is a professor emeritus of the UH Manoa Department of Urban and Regional Planning.

The issue of affordable housing on Oahu is not only about the cost of housing itself but also who actually pays for it, because the new buyer, the developer, the landowner and the taxpayer are all involved.

Opinion article badge

Who ends up paying the most depends on public policy implementation and the market. Hawaii taxpayers pay too much in many direct and indirect ways.

In the Kakaako district, high-rise development syphoned the land, infrastructure, and government resources from providing the affordable housing originally intended for people to live and work there in a “town in town.”

In Ewa and Central Oahu, real-estate development resulted in extensive urban sprawl on the best agricultural lands, preempting food-shed zones at the urban fringe by “leapfrogging.” The result is that Honolulu is too dependent on imported food and massive taxpayer costs to subsidize rail.

Urban sprawl mimics mainland urbanization standards incongruent with our small island ecology. The rail financial debacle negates the opportunity to address pressing social services, infrastructure and taking care of the unhoused.

Both Kakaako and Oahu suburbanization are not the result of good public interest planning but only of a real estate speculative model: cornering the “unearned increment of land values” increases profits for both the landowner and the developer.

The landowner corners excessive profit at the rezoning of land to higher uses and the developers do it with subsidized infrastructure and facilities. That is why there is little affordable housing for Hawaii residents: the government never “recaptured the land value increase” in spite of the fact that the city grows because of them.

Costs And Capital

On-site development costs are usually absorbed by the developers and charged to the homebuyer. But the off-site development costs are paid by the taxpayer, unless the government proactively charges impact fees for the cost of development and does not give away zoning concession and tax holidays to the landowner.

Costs are not just for the building but also occur at the community and the neighborhood levels. They include community direct costs and capital and operating costs for residential, school, utilities, streets, land, public facilities, public services, utilities, runoff, open space and parks.

Towering cranes and condominium construction mauka of the Kewalo Basin Harbor.
Constructing more high-rises is not the best way to provide more housing in Honolulu. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

The building typology makes a difference in price for single-family, townhouses, walkup apartments, high-rise apartment and a mix of these typologies on a given site.

The Real Estate Research Corporation in 1974 documented the cost of urban sprawl. Community environmental costs for 10,000 house units were higher in low-density development, lower for planned mix-development and even lower in high-density development.

Community direct costs, and capital and operating costs, were higher for low-density sprawl and low-density planned communities than in planned mix and high-density development.

Neighborhood direct costs of 1,000 housing units were higher for single-family conventional, single-family clustered and lower for hosing mix and even lower for high-rise apartments.

A study in 1992 associated urban sprawl with the costs mentioned above and with less farmland, open space and more traffic. It concludes that sprawl is a significant burden to homeowners and taxpayers and, for the latter, it is increased when government subsidizes commuting — which is the consequence of sprawl.

Real-estate vested interests claim that just building high-density high-rises and eliminating regulations is the solution. So wrong! Towering high-rises are not that livable because they cram too many people in a building that is too expensive to manage and maintain, requires too many elevators, concentrates fire risks and makes evacuation difficult.

High-rise apartments above 10 stories are not easily reachable by the fire ladder trucks. Vulnerable residents, children, the elderly and handicapped remain at risk.

More than a dozen apartments per floor hinder sociability. Big towers are more expensive to build, afford, maintain and keep safe.

On Oahu there is too much sprawling single-family subdivisions or “low density, low rise” and in Honolulu too many tall towers “high density, high rise.”

A third way is much better: “high-density, low-rise” is the desirable building typology for human scale “livable cities” that is consistent with the integrated principles of “new urbanism,” “smart growth” and “transit-oriented development.”

Big towers are more expensive to build, afford, maintain and keep safe.

Human scale is implemented by building heights between four to 12 stories, with six to 12 apartment per floor, and with densities of 45 to 85 dwelling units per acre (du/acre) for an average of 65 du/acre.

Local contractors can erect these buildings more cheaply than the luxury towers of mega-developers that do not really serve the local residents. Competition among small contractors keeps housing costs in check while costs increase when a few big developers monopolize construction.

These standards can implement human scale, defensible spaces, affordable maintenance and open space. They facilitate livability, neighborliness, and a sense of community and family.

When Hawaii residents are better informed about planning, they can expect that new housing will become really affordable and livable, now that millions of dollars are allocated to it.

Community Voices aims to encourage broad discussion on many topics of community interest. It’s kind of a cross between Letters to the Editor and op-eds. This is your space to talk about important issues or interesting people who are making a difference in our world. Column lengths should be no more than 800 words and we need a photo of the author and a bio. We welcome video commentary and other multimedia formats. Send to The opinions and information expressed in Community Voices are solely those of the authors and not Civil Beat.

Read this next:

Catherine Toth Fox: How Did My 5-Year-Old Learn His Way Around An iPad Already?

Not a subscription

Civil Beat is a small nonprofit newsroom, and we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content because we believe in journalism as a public service. That’s why donations from readers like you are essential to our continued existence.

Help keep our journalism free for all readers by becoming a monthly member of Civil Beat today.


About the Author

Luciano Minerbi

Luciano Minerbi is a professor emeritus of the UH Manoa Department of Urban and Regional Planning.

Latest Comments (0)

And, I must add, Government has no incentive to provide for affordability, because property taxes are the main source of income for the counties. If the price of property comes down, the counties will loss money. In 20 years, property values has gone up at least 400%.Value is a state of mind, and we have been brained washed into thinking like mainland people. Aloha is disappearing at an alarming rate. Crime is up, and the police union and chief are taking about "no knock" searches to improve the policing and prosecution rate. Didn’t they take an oath to uphold the constitution?We need to get some ALOHA back. Then and only then cost will come down and it will be a more livable place to live again.

dboy54 · 10 months ago

Sounds like we already have neighborhoods similar to what you're advocating, although mostly two-story rather than four to six stories. Some examples include across Kapi'olani Blvd from Ala Wai Park, and between Pearlridge and Waimalu Shopping Centers. I wonder if existing infrastructure-- water, sewer, electrical-- would support redevelopment of many of those two-story walkups into the 4 to 6 story buildings you suggest. The infrastructure problem has prevented more widespread building of Ohana units, another way to increase density.If such redevelopment is possible, wouldn't it make sense for many of those buildings to include some ground floor commercial units, especially since many of the existing two-story walkups are adjacent to commercial buildings anyway? Increasing the density of the Aiea location would make sense because it's near a train station, assuming the train does eventually start transporting people.

Rob · 10 months ago

A few days in Amsterdam would be useful ...they're all low rise (up to about 6 stories), with sidewalks + very busy bike lanes + auto lanes + electric tram down middle of each street. It can be done, but Honolulu is not doing it.

Haleiwa_Dad · 10 months ago

Join the conversation


IDEAS is the place you'll find essays, analysis and opinion on every aspect of life and public affairs in Hawaii. We want to showcase smart ideas about the future of Hawaii, from the state's sharpest thinkers, to stretch our collective thinking about a problem or an issue. Email to submit an idea.


You're officially signed up for our daily newsletter, the Morning Beat. A confirmation email will arrive shortly.

In the meantime, we have other newsletters that you might enjoy. Check the boxes for emails you'd like to receive.

  • What's this? Be the first to hear about important news stories with these occasional emails.
  • What's this? You'll hear from us whenever Civil Beat publishes a major project or investigation.
  • What's this? Get our latest environmental news on a monthly basis, including updates on Nathan Eagle's 'Hawaii 2040' series.
  • What's this? Get occasional emails highlighting essays, analysis and opinion from IDEAS, Civil Beat's commentary section.

Inbox overcrowded? Don't worry, you can unsubscribe
or update your preferences at any time.