Chad Blair: A Streamlined Solution To Hawaii's Chronic Housing Woes - Honolulu Civil Beat


About the Author

Chad Blair

Chad Blair is the politics and opinion editor for Civil Beat. You can reach him by email at cblair@civilbeat.org or follow him on Twitter at @chadblairCB.

When I was growing up in the Midwest, my maternal grandparents often visited our house pulling an Airstream trailer behind their car.

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For my grandparents, the trailer served as a convenient, affordable home away from home complete with kitchen, dining table, bed and bath. They traveled a lot, too, including from Texas to Kansas to Nebraska to Oklahoma to Colorado.

For us grandkids, it was a delight to play in the silver-metallic, sci-fi-looking trailer. It looked a lot like the photo of a vintage Airstream Bambi at the top of this page. The stigma that trailers and mobile homes represent the lower class was something I didn’t become aware of until I was older.

I’ve been thinking about mobile homes and trailers these days, prompted in part because I just moved apartments for the first time in 14 years but also because affordable housing is top of mind in Hawaii, as it will be forever. When I look at all the luxury high rises in Kakaako, it can sometimes seem like we are not making much progress.

To emphasize how much of a priority affordable housing remains, one of the first hires of the Green administration was chief housing director Nani Medeiros. Last week she shared with the media a complex approach to help meet an estimated demand of 50,000 new housing units.

Interestingly, the local news came the same week that the new mayor of Los Angeles, Karen Bass, said her administration will begin moving homeless people from tents into hotels and motels. Bass has declared homelessness a state of emergency.

The Airstream Bambi has a starting price of $59,300.
The Airstream Bambi has a starting price of $59,300, according to the company’s website. Screenshot/2022

Contrast what’s happening in L.A. with the islands, where many hotels — usually happily stuffed with heads in beds during the holidays — have lifted blackout periods and minimum stays and dangled discounts on parking and resort fees. There’s even complimentary breakfast.

I am fairly certain the visitor industry will never consent to moving homeless people into hotels. There is a huge difference between private housing and public housing. And homelessness and lack of affordable housing are separate, if connected, issues.

But I do wish Hawaii would make an effort to encourage locals to acquire mobile homes and trailers. As best as I can tell it’s not illegal to own one, but there are barriers.

The floor plan for the Airstream Bambi.
The floor plan for the Airstream Bambi. Screenshot/2022

Airstream still makes “travel trailers,” as they call them today, including the Bambi, which sleeps up to four and offers air-conditioning and heating. Other features include overhead storage, USB and 110V charging ports, LED HDTV and built-in DVD and a JVC stereo with Bluetooth.

The starting price for the 2023 model is $59,300.

Compare that with $1.1 million, which was the median sale price for a single-family home on Oahu in November, according to Locations Hawaii. For a condominium, it’s $480,000.

Rent ain’t cheap, either. Zumper reports that, as of December, the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in urban Honolulu is $1,800. Pretty sure it doesn’t include a built-in DVD.

Growing Interest

I’m not the first to raise the issues of mobile homes and trailers. In 2017 Aaron Lief of the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii published an article in Maui Watch titled “Why No Trailer Parks On Maui?”

“With the cost of housing displacing more local families every day, these affordable alternative communities are noticeably absent,” wrote Lief, who also made mention of tiny homes, a concept that was then starting to catch on. “So what’s preventing their development?”

Lief checked with the Maui Planning Commission’s zoning commission, which he said told him that there were not any “explicit legal barriers.” The problem is finding apartment-zoned land on an island along with a “daunting and sluggish” permitting process.

Even at that time, however, Lief pointed out that Oahu was already embarking on a tiny housing project — Kahauiki Village, a “plantation-style permanent supportive housing community” for formerly homeless households, as it is described today on the Institute for Human Services website.

The village’s creation is credited to a 2015 emergency proclamation from then-Gov. David Ige. Other micro-unit or prefabricated or modular complexes have since appeared around the state, including Hale Kikaha in Kailua-Kona, run by Hawaii County. But seven years later affordable housing remains out of reach for many.

Downtown Honolulu with right, Ala Moana Beach Park and Kakaako.
Tall buildings are sprouting all around the Ala Moana Beach Park and Kakaako, but how many are truly affordable — or desirable? Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Joe Kent, the Grassroot vice president, told me that he thinks the reason we don’t see more trailer homes in Hawaii is because of the scarcity of land zoned for housing at the state and county levels.

“It’s hard to imagine that a developer would spend a decade getting through the most burdensome and expensive regulatory hurdles in the nation only to build a trailer park,” he said, adding that he’d like to see counties zone more land “to encourage more low-cost housing options, which may help encourage more multi-family housing and closely-knit housing options such as mobile homes.”

Civil Beat has reported on mobile homes, too. A 2015 article cited some of the same reasons as Grassroot, as well as concerns about manufactured homes becoming eyesores. The high price of land is another reason. So too is the power of construction and shipping unions.

“Local unions naturally prefer on-site production since replacing their labor with imported work generally means less employment for their members,” Civil Beat wrote.

A word on terminology here: Starting in 1976, the federal government determined that mobile homes are considered manufactured homes, meaning they are fully built in a factory and then transported to a permanent location. But not all manufactured homes are “mobile” in the sense that they may not have wheels.

“In some cases, homes are considered ‘mobile’ when they’re trailer homes,” explains a 2022 article in Forbes. “These depreciate in value similar to cars and other vehicles.”

I began this article talking about mobile homes and trailers, and that is still what I am advocating for, even if various terms are used interchangeably and perhaps incorrectly. Airstream also produces “touring coaches,” which are like Winnebago RVs — that is, you can drive them. I had a great aunt and uncle who owned a Winnebago, and that was pretty cool too.

But one thing seems clear, as USA Today reported in January: Manufactured or mobile homes are growing in popularity.

“From 2014-2019, the median value of manufactured homes rose at a faster clip in 27 states than the median value of single-family homes,” the story reported.

Trailer parks are also not just for those with modest incomes anymore. Business Insider reported in 2019 that Paradise Cove in Malibu, Calif., is called one of America’s “most expensive trailer parks.” It’s home to celebrities such as Minnie Driver, Pamela Anderson and Matthew McConaughey.

A rendering of the New Aloha Stadium Entertainment District. Imagine all the Bambis it could hold instead. Courtesy: Crawford Architects

Which brings us back to Hawaii: Where would we park our mobile homes, if we could have them?

One possibility: Halawa, currently the location of the shuttered Aloha Stadium that some now want to convert into a massive housing-entertainment-sports complex.

A better idea might be to use the $400 million in state funding to instead buy a fleet of Bambis from Airstream for the 98-acre site. It’s even next to the rail line.

Now that’s what I’d call a public-private partnership.


Read this next:

OHA Takes Another Shot At Lifting Residential Ban In Kakaako Makai


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About the Author

Chad Blair

Chad Blair is the politics and opinion editor for Civil Beat. You can reach him by email at cblair@civilbeat.org or follow him on Twitter at @chadblairCB.


Latest Comments (0)

People all over the Big Island are living in junker cars. Up in the Kohala hills in Waimea subdivisions, all the way down to Puna. Parked in yards, driveways, on side streets, and on dirt trails in the jungle. Would be more humane to have them sleeping in campers, and more sanitary. Here in Honokaa there are homeless cooking their dinners in the highly flammable cane grass around us. I'd rather have them all living in self-contained trailers.

Bett · 3 weeks ago

Manufactured homes are one thing, trailers and RVs are another. Trailer parks become instant ghettos, just look at the mainland,

Big_B · 3 weeks ago

Change in so many aspects of life in needed, past due, it's needed now. One thing I doubt will change is that no one wants to live permanent-like in trailer home. The pre-fab industry has finally gotten it that pre-fabs can be built better than conventional homes, believe it or not, designs have caught up to the present so pre-fabs can look like the expensive modern homes being built today and shipped complete to set up, room by room. Just unfold it. Nothing need ever be again a white box.That change is phenomenal and questionably overdue. What stands in the way are all the people set up in the current industry who make a lot of money which they have every right to do. Maybe if they wanted to speed up the process they could. Always ask my self for whom are the current disadvantages advantages.So there it's again about money or people and which comes first. People do. When we start getting that maybe in some long off world we'll get it right.

youknowyouknow · 3 weeks ago

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