With many Hawaii residents priced out of the real estate market on Oahu, affordable housing projects are filling up as fast as they can be built. That means waitlists may be anywhere from six months to three years.

To increase their chances, property managers encourage people to apply for units in multiple buildings.

”If I know I have a long waitlist in one of my properties, I refer them to another property where I think has a shorter waitlist,” said Randeatte McEnroe, regional property manager for Hawaii Affordable Properties. “I always encourage applicants to apply to as many properties as they want because, at the end of the day, the goal is to get people housed.”

Marin Tower is one of Honolulu’s affordable housing projects. The building has 236 units. PF Bentley/Civil Beat/204

Hawaii Affordable Properties, a local property management company, oversees 5,000 rental units in the state, including some built by the City and County of Honolulu.

Applicants are processed on a first-come, first-served basis, with units usually becoming available only when someone is evicted or moves out, McEnroe said, adding that occupancy rates are about 100%.

Applying To Multiple Projects

The precise number of people waiting for affordable rentals to open up can’t be determined because many apply to multiple projects. The state and counties maintain housing inventories, but waitlists for each building are the responsibility of the property mangers.

McEnroe and others said people have waited six months to three years for an affordable rental to open up.

The waiting period illustrates the growing demand for affordable housing as home prices have increased sharply in the islands, with the median price over $1 million.

Kali Watson, the president and CEO of the nonprofit Hawaiian Community Development Board, said the waitlist is a reflection of the “tremendous need for affordable housing,” especially for people who earn less than 60% of the area median income. The area median income for a single person is $79,300.

“Without a doubt, with Hawaii being the most expensive place to rent, the alternative is to get on the waitlist, live in an overcrowded situation or become homeless,” Watson said. “It’s a sad situation that needs to be addressed by key players in the whole process, which includes the city.”

According to a 2016 report by the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism, Hawaii would need 64,700 affordable housing units to meet the demand by 2025. Oahu alone would need about 21,000 additional housing units between 2020 and 2030, according to the department’s 2019 report.

Anton Krucky, director of the Honolulu mayor's office of housing and homelessness, wants to change the way the city responds to people on the street.
Anton Krucky, director of the Honolulu Department of Community Services. Courtesy: Honolulu Mayor's Office

Earlier this month, the city announced a nearly $30 million plan to build six affordable housing projects with a total of 972 units within the next five years. The projects are partly funded by the city’s affordable housing fund.

People in the 60% AMI range and lower would qualify for the rentals, according to Honolulu Department of Community Services Director Anton Krucky, adding that the units are for single people and families and range from studios to four bedrooms.

“These aren’t college dormitories,” Krucky said. “Those are nice, nice projects that I think anybody would be proud of.”

The city has 20 affordable housing properties run by the Honolulu Department of Land Management, which contracts with companies such as Hawaii Affordable Properties to manage the sites.

Those units also are available to people earning 30% to 60% of the area median income.

Filling Up Quickly

Krucky said he expects the new buildings to fill up quickly, as they usually do.

In 2020, it took 30 days for 37 units to fill up at Maunakea Marketplace in Chinatown, according to Avalon Group President and CEO Christine Camp, who manages the property.

The building’s waitlist changes frequently, but it takes an average of six months to more than a year for people to get in, Camp said.

“At the end of the day, the goal is to get people housed.” — Randeatte McEnroe of Hawaii Affordable Properties

She added that the list of people applying for affordable housing would be even longer if she counted those who don’t qualify because they don’t have paperwork such as pay stubs, tax returns, or other proof of income. Camp said that people who apply to an affordable housing unit may have applied to five others.

Camp said she’s heard of tenants declining job promotions to keep their affordable housing status. Those who see their income status rise above the limit have a year to move out of the property, she said.

“People at the affordable housing level, it’s not a static population,” Camp said. “When you get a promotion, you might need to move out and things of that nature. It can be immensely disruptive to them.”

Oahu alone would need about 21,000 additional housing units. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Mark Development Inc., which manages 16 affordable housing projects comprised of 876 units on Oahu, Kauai and Hawaii island, said it has an average occupancy rate of 97%. Of 23 vacant units, seven have people scheduled to move in, six have a tenant selected and 10 have prospective tenants being processed or going through unit turnover procedures.

But multiple factors affect the waitlist time because it varies by project.  There are 1,350 households on the waitlist, but applicants are counted two or three times because they have applied to numerous properties to increase their chance to get in, according to Mark Development Inc.

The state and counties have a list of their affordable housing inventory, but each property manager keeps an individual list of people waiting for an affordable housing unit.

Hawaii Zoning Atlas Project Director Trey Gordner said the waitlist forces applicants to compete for a limited number of affordable housing units.

Trey Gordner stands with the backdrop of Honolulu in photograph made on Round Top.
Trey Gordner, project director of Hawaii Zoning Atlas. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Gordner said while there’s a nationwide housing shortage, Hawaii’s issue is different because of its strict zoning laws and limited land.

“The real takeaway is that thousands of people are competing for hundreds of slots,” Gordner said about Hawaii. “It doesn’t matter how we divvy up the tiny pie. There’s just not enough housing to go around.”

Jeff Gilbreath, the executive director for Hawaii Community Lending, a nonprofit that offers financial counseling, grants and loans, works with people struggling to buy a house or pay their rent.

He said the high cost of housing is forcing some families to consider moving to the mainland, although even that is a luxury some can’t afford.

“We have a lot of families that don’t have the resources to even go somewhere else that can make their financial situation better,” he continued. “It’s a daily struggle, and there’s a lot of hopelessness that families are feeling.”

Gilbreath called the city’s push to build more affordable housing a step in the right direction but said “we should be taking a step further.”

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