The Catholic Church has joined a nonprofit organization to develop a 17-story affordable housing building for older adults on downtown property owned by the church at Fort Street Mall, nestled on one of the oldest streets in Honolulu.

The $50 million building will have 66 one-bedroom units, each with rent of less than $1,000 per month, according to Michael Magaoay, president of the Catholic Charities Housing Development Corp., one of the partners on the project.

Magaoay said that 66 units is a small dent in building more affordable housing in Hawaii but called it “a step in the right direction.”

The proposal comes as Honolulu officials are pushing for more affordable rentals as lower income residents are increasingly priced out of the real estate market. Earlier this month, the city announced a nearly $30 million plan to build six affordable housing projects in Aiea, Wailua, McCully, Halawa, Kailua and Chinatown, comprising 972 units total, within the next five years.

Buildings with the address of 1155 and 1159 Fort Street Mall.
A Catholic Church is proposing a 17-story affordable housing building at Fort Street Mall. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Housing advocates have said construction isn’t coming fast enough to meet the demand, especially from older adults, as the median price of a home rose above $1 million last year. At least 18% of Oahu’s population is at least 65 years old.

Hawaii would need 64,700 affordable housing units to meet the demand by 2025, according to a 2016 report by the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism.

The Catholic Charities Housing Development Corp. of Hawaii pitched its proposal for the building at 1155 and 1159 Fort Street Mall to the Downtown-Chinatown Neighborhood Board last week. It has hired R.M. Towill Corp. and Avalon Group as consultants.

The private initiative was the brainchild of Bishop Larry Silva, who leads the Roman Catholic Diocese of Honolulu.

“This is his mission to provide affordable housing on the property,” Magaoay said.

Fifty-nine of the units will be designated for people earning 60% of the area median income, which is $79,300, and the remaining will be for those earning 30% of that. The project will also include a unit for a manager, Magaoay said in an interview.

Fort Street Mall was Honolulu’s first retail center and home to many markets. Because of its tight location, the affordable housing project would not have parking.

“We try to build where we can build because we’re looking at what’s close to all the hubs, whether it’s medical or pharmaceutical services,” Magaoay said, adding that the location is convenient enough for residents to walk to those services or use public transportation.

R.M. Towill assistant planner Isaiah Sato told the neighborhood board that the project is in the beginning stages and must go through the Honolulu Department of Planning and Permitting. He said he hopes to get final approval from the Honolulu City Council sometime next year.

Magaoay said the goal is to start construction by 2024 but acknowledged that’s optimistic.

The project received no opposition from the neighborhood board, although some members suggested that the roof of the building should serve as a community space.

According to city officials, Chinatown has about 14 apartment buildings deemed as affordable housing, including two already designated for older adults.

Chair Ernest Caravalho said affordable housing has grown in Honolulu’s urban core, but not everyone has welcomed previous efforts in the neighborhood. Because the area is so dense, Caravalho said developers have to build upward and some people objected to high-rises that block their harbor views.

“There’s some people that feel that when you bring in affordable housing, you bring in a different class of people, which is definitely not true,” he added.

Last year, Hawaii-based Ikenakea Development proposed a 22-story affordable housing building with 49 studio rental units, but the project’s co-manager Kali Watson said that was scrapped because they didn’t get approval for funding. However, the company is continuing with its hotel project.

Magaoay said demand is so great that affordable rental units are quickly snapped up, and the waiting period to get in is six months.

For 29-year-old Lev Gerstle, the hunt for a more affordable apartment has been frustrating.

Gerstle is a research associate at the University of Hawaii Manoa who earns up to $48,000 per year. When he did the math, he wasn’t happy with how much rent he has paid in the last five years. And he can’t afford a down payment on a house.

He tried to apply for affordable housing in Kakaako last year but was told he’d have to wait two years. He likes the area because it’s convenient to bike or catch the bus to work.

“It’s frustrating to be directly told that you’re being priced out of Hawaii,” Gerstle said.

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