It seemed like a modest step toward solving a big problem: a bill to provide affordable rental housing for public school teachers on a vacant parcel next to a school in Ewa. In the end, the bill collapsed at the finish line, dying in conference committee.

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The measure’s sponsor, Rep. Scot Matayoshi, said the rental housing development is still alive even without the state’s help. But the Legislature’s failure to pass even a modest measure to support workforce housing shows just how hard it can be to address housing needs for key occupations like teachers, nurses and hotel workers.

A more ambitious bill to require the state Department of Education to develop housing for teachers went nowhere.

Meanwhile, in contrast to employers in places like the San Francisco Bay Area and Seattle, the private sector in Hawaii appears to be doing little to address challenges facing workers, which are especially acute in sectors like hospitality and health care.

It’s not like there’s no interest in housing policy. The Legislature in the past session pledged to create more housing in the islands by appropriating roughly $1 billion for a range of projects designed to help a spectrum of residents, from homeless people to welfare recipients to middle-income households earning nearly $100,000 annually. Also included was a bill steering $600 million for Native Hawaiian homes.

Construction fencing on a large parcel of land located next to Holomua Elementary in Ewa.
The promise of affordable housing for public school teachers remains largely empty, like this lot next to Holomua Elementary in Ewa. A bill to support development of teacher housing here died during the last legislative session. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

In a recent series of opinion pieces published by the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, two gubernatorial candidates – Lt. Gov. Josh Green and businesswoman Vicky Cayetano – laid out extensive housing proposals. But implementing such programs is likely to prove harder than merely writing them down.

In the meantime, there’s the pressing question of whether employers can create homes for workers.

Teacher Housing Concept Is ‘Still Alive’

The Ewa school housing bill is a case in point. Policymakers repeatedly have said Hawaii’s high housing costs make it hard to recruit and retain teachers. But efforts to address the issue have been limited.

Private institutions like Punahou School provide some inexpensive housing for faculty, as does the University of Hawaii. The education department, which oversees the public school system, reportedly has some teacher housing as well, but spokeswoman Nanea Kalani couldn’t say how much housing there is or where it is located.

The measure sponsored by Matayoshi, a former public school teacher himself, would have used one method to develop more. The bill authorized the state to buy a 12-acre parcel behind Holomua Elementary to develop affordable housing. Priority would have been given to Department of Education classroom teachers just entering the profession.

The property was unused, open space owned by the developer Gentry Homes, the builder of the nearby Ewa Gentry subdivision. The idea was for the builder to work with a nonprofit housing organization, Matayoshi said. The cost to the state would have been minimal, he said. And the bill’s final version had support from major players like the Department of Education and Hawaii State Teachers Association.

Still, the measure died.

“It didn’t die through a lack of merit,” Matayoshi said. “It just wasn’t quite ripe yet.”

The goal, Matayoshi said, was to get the project started by prompting a discussion in a public forum.

“It’s still alive as a concept,” he said. “The landowner and the nonprofit developer are still talking.”

A next step will be to work with Hawaii Sen. Kurt Fevella to get community input.

“If we can find more situations where this would work – and they exist – then we see this as a pilot project moving forward,” Matayoshi said.

Other States Are Doing It

Still, Hawaii’s efforts to develop housing for public school teachers looks sluggish compared to efforts in places like Silicon Valley. For example, the Santa Clara school district’s Casa Del Maestro teacher apartment complex, which is next to an elementary school and owned by the school district, has become a model for other districts in California, the education nonprofit EdSource reports.

And researchers at UCLA and the University of California Berkeley have stepped in with a study identifying opportunities across the state to develop teacher housing on school-owned property, an idea championed in Hawaii by state Sen. Stanley Chang in a bill.

The UCLA-Berkeley study included language reminiscent of Hawaii’s problems.

“Many of the 300,000 public school teachers cannot afford to live in the communities where they work, forcing them to commute long distances or pushing them out of the education system altogether,” the California study says. “Attracting new teachers has also grown more challenging.”

So why can’t Hawaii get anything done?

The issue is more complex than it might seem, said Chang, chairman of the Senate Housing Committee. Chang said one issue involving public education housing, for example, is that it requires more than teachers to make schools operate. So the question arises if housing should be made available to employees besides teachers – all in the context of collective bargaining agreements with different unions representing different occupations.

Still, Chang said he sees potential.

“I think the momentum is there,” he said. “I think people recognize that the housing shortage is affecting teachers in a disproportionate way, so I think the momentum is there.”

Stanley Chang
Hawaii Sen. Stanley Chang, who spoke recently at a conference for land-use lawyers, said the idea of providing housing for Department of Education workers is gaining momentum. Stewart Yerton/Civil Beat/2022

Places like the Bay Area and Seattle are also far in front of Hawaii when it comes to the private sector’s involvement in housing issues. Google is investing $1 billion to build housing, and so is Apple, according to media reports and company news releases.

Google Chief Executive Sundar Pichai wrote in a blog post: “We know our responsibility to help starts at home. For us, that means being a good neighbor in the place where it all began over 20 years ago: the San Francisco Bay Area.”

A comprehensive article in a National Association of Realtors trade magazine showed how companies like Amazon and Microsoft are making similar investments in Seattle, while Universal is working to build housing for theme park workers in Florida. And even some small properties in resort towns are building employee housing, the trade magazine Lodging reports.

For Hawaii’s hospitality industry, the solution isn’t to build housing for workers, but rather to support policies to enable developers to build more affordable housing units, according to Kekoa McClellan, spokesperson for the American Hotel and Lodging Association.

“Solutions to Hawaii’s affordable housing crisis need to focus on both increasing the supply of more affordable units and ensuring that those units end up in the hands of the kamaaina for whom they are intended,” McClellan said in a statement.

That has included supporting policies to eliminate illegal short-term rentals and to encourage development of affordable units in Honolulu’s urban core by allowing for more density.

“What Hawaii needs is common sense affordable housing policies that promote the development of new units,” he said. “Solving our supply problem will require our State and County governments to reduce permitting barriers to new affordable housing units.”

The Queen’s Medical Center once included residences for nurses. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2016

In some ways, Hawaii seems to be going backwards when it comes to employers providing affordable housing for workers. For example, Daniel Ross, president of the Hawaii Nurses Association, notes that The Queen’s Medical Center once provided affordable, dorm-style apartments for nurses.

Art Gladstone, executive vice president and chief strategy officer for Hawaii Pacific Health, said the hospital giant has no plans to offer affordable rental housing for employees of its four main facilities: Kapiolani, Pali Momi, Straub and Wilcox hospitals.

Still, Gladstone acknowledged the availability and affordability of housing is a challenge, especially when it comes to recruiting professionals like nurses.

“It’s a big factor and has long been a factor,” he said.

Struggling To Get By” is part of our series on “Hawaii’s Changing Economy” which is supported by a grant from the Hawaii Community Foundation as part of its CHANGE Framework project.

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