For years, Hawaii Sen. Stanley Chang has been promoting Singapore’s government housing program as a solution to Hawaii’s housing shortage. Now Chang, who is chair of the Senate Housing Committee and a leader on housing issues, is promoting another model: the city of Vienna’s “social housing” program.

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Chang says he’s not abandoning Singapore; rather, he says, Vienna and Singapore both fall under the umbrella of “social housing.” The goal is to have affordable rentals available to everyone, like access to public school.

“The main difference between social housing and what we think of in America as public housing is that social housing is not income restricted,” Chang said in an interview. “Social housing is intended to be for all, not just lower income people.”

But while the Singapore model calls for government-subsidized condominiums sold under long-term leases, Vienna’s model provides low-cost rentals; some 60% of the population there lives in government-subsidized housing, Chang said.

Chang is hardly the only housing expert looking at Vienna. Policymakers in and around Washington, D.C., as well as Los Angeles have looked to the Austrian capital as a model, National Public Radio reports. Bloomberg recently did a deep dive on the subject, reporting how, while major cities across Europe and South America are facing housing shortages, “The Austrian capital, Vienna, is one of the most affordable major cities in the world.”

Stanley Chang
Hawaii Sen. Stanley Chang on Thursday shared with Honolulu land-use lawyers his vision of “public school for housing.” Stewart Yerton/Civil Beat/2022

Chang is beating the drum in Hawaii, picking up a variation of the housing-for-all idea trumpeted by U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders when he was campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Last week, Chang spoke extensively about his idea at a land-use law conference sponsored by the Hawaii State Bar Association. In September, Chang is organizing a trip, the Vienna Social Housing Delegation, to study Vienna’s model up close.

Chang’s push for Vienna-style social housing follows a legislative session that was a mixed bag for the senator. Bills that Chang introduced to provide housing for public school teachers and ease county zoning restrictions went nowhere. And his “ALOHA Homes” bill to set up a Singapore-style program in Hawaii died in the House.

Still, lawmakers passed bills Chang sponsored, laying a foundation for social housing, Chang says. One lets the Hawaii Public Housing Authority develop mixed-income housing, not just housing for lower-income people. Another changes a definition of lands held by the state Housing Finance and Development Corp. so the land can be leased up to 99 years, Chang says.

Chang’s promoting Vienna also comes as Hawaii’s housing crisis emerges as a major policy issue. The median price for a single-family home on Oahu is now more than $1 million. Meanwhile, studies highlight a bulk of Hawaii households, including far more than those in poverty, are living paycheck to paycheck, often having to decide between paying for rent or child care. More than 40% of residents have limited assets and little upward income mobility despite being employed, one frequently cited study reports.

Chang said most government housing programs, like the federal Low Income Housing Tax Credit and Section 8 programs, focus on lower-income people, not working households that are just getting by and unable to buy a home.

“They never were intended to and still don’t address the housing problems of the majority of the population,” Chang said.

Hawaii is redeveloping its Mayor Wright Homes complex, which was originally built in 1953, into a mixed-use, mixed-income affordable housing development. But it stops far short of what Vienna is doing. Anthony Quintano/ Civil Beat/2016

He acknowledged the government needs to help those most vulnerable, but it also should help the middle class, he said.

“What I believe is, one job should be enough,” Chang said. “What a lot of these studies are showing is that one job is not enough. The primary reason one job is not enough in Hawaii is the housing shortage.”

Hawaii has taken steps to build mixed-use, mixed-income government housing projects, such as the Mayor Wright Homes project, a 15-acre site which the housing authority is redeveloping through a public-private partnership. Chang said having a mix of incomes is an improvement over traditional public housing projects, which often created geographic concentrations of poverty. But he also said the Mayor Wright project still will rent properties at rates that vary depending on the renter’s income.

Social housing charges everyone the same, much like public schools, he said.

Chang said Hawaii’s housing ecosystem lends itself to social housing. Hawaii has government agencies like HHFDC and HPHA, he said. There are also nonprofit housing developers of the sort that partner with the government to build and manage projects in Austria. Laws are in place, he said. And there’s public money and state land.

What’s needed, he said, is political will. The next governor, Chang said, should be willing to make sure Hawaii builds more homes to shelter its people at prices they can afford. And that means saying, “if I don’t build them, then you can hold me accountable.”

“That level of accountability is not something we’ve had in the United States,” 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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