Neal Milner: We Should Rethink Our Housing Priorities While Waiting For The World To Change - Honolulu Civil Beat

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About the Author

Neal Milner

Neal Milner is a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii where he taught for 40 years. He is a political analyst for KITV and is a regular contributor to Hawaii Public Radio's "The Conversation." His most recent book is The Gift of Underpants. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

We tell ourselves stories to make sense of the world. Often these stories are flawed — reassuring but misleading.

The story we tell about homelessness is flawed because it far underestimates the importance of affordable housing. That may seem surprising or even wrong to you. How can any stories about living in Hawaii underestimate affordability?

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They can, and they do.

Think about how you and your friends, neighbors or colleagues talk about homeless people, or read posts on the Nextdoor site.

The stories are about mess, disgust, disorder and surveillance. Example: “Yesterday at 9 p.m. I saw a homeless man I hadn’t seen before near a dumpster behind.” They typically talk about drug addiction, craziness and filth.

As Jerusalem Demsas puts it, “Identifying personal failures or specific tragedies helps those of us who have homes feel less precarious.” Because “if homelessness is about personal failure, it’s easier to dismiss as something that couldn’t happen to us, and harsh treatment is easier to rationalize toward those who experience it.”

Instead of thinking about homeless people’s individual characteristics, think about musical chairs, as Demsas does. In that game someone is always out of luck. If the number of available affordable housing units are less than the number of people, there will be homeless people.

That simple formula cuts to the chase. It means that the primary way of looking at homelessness is not through personal deficits. It’s housing deficit.

Cities with the highest addiction rates don’t have the biggest homeless problem.

Nor do the cities with the highest poverty rates. High-poverty cities with relatively reasonable rental prices have less homelessness. Places with low poverty rates and low unemployment have high homeless numbers.

The creative class, superstar cities like L.A., San Francisco, Portland and Boston have the biggest homeless problem because there is such a housing shortage.

Pulama Lanai Hokuao affordable housing units.
The pace of building affordable housing has not kept pace with the need in Hawaii or other states. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Growth there has far outstripped housing supply. High-tech workers could afford the resulting housing price increases, at least for a while. More and more, other people who had moved to these places to fill the demand for other jobs in these hot economies, could not. They were priced out of the market.

The so-called housing market did not, and still does not, adjust to this increase in demand by increasing supply, partly because there is too little money in it but mostly because municipal governments make this so hard to do.

Those superstar cities are heavily Democratic cities with liberal politicians. Some of the strongest, most aggressive not in my backyard people are liberal Democrats who support affordable housing in principle but go all NIMBY when it comes to their own neighborhoods.

Stop me if you’ve heard these reasons before: zoning laws, traffic, noise, parking, better uses for the land, beauty, density, keeping the country country, keeping the neighborhood the neighborhood and environmental regs. “We are not NIMBYs. It’s just that.”

Though we have a superstar homeless problem, Honolulu is not an economic superstar city. But during my entire time in Hawaii, we have had the same population growth/housing disparity problem and the same affordable housing pushback and guerilla warfare.

What’s more, zoning laws, construction obstacles and NIMBYs are alive and well in Hawaii. So is the fact that people objecting to affordable housing in the neighborhoods have more resources and time at their disposal than people who might live in these places if they were built.

Here is a thought experiment for you:

If affordable housing were more a priority than it is now, could you still justify the opposition to Manoa Banyan, a proposed affordable housing seniors project in upper Manoa. If you still can justify opposing it, where do you think that housing should be located instead and why?

The homeless will be among us in about the same number (if not more) and in the same way that they are now. There is no end in sight, mainly because substantially increasing the number of affordable housing is at best a long-term solution and, realistically, a solution that might never happen.

The state needs at least 24,000 affordable housing units. There is no way, though, that we can be optimistic about the time it will take to get there.

A few years ago, L.A. voters committed well over a billion dollars for homeless housing. The project is already far behind. What Jim O’Connell, a doctor who has spent his whole professional life caring for Boston’s homeless, says about that housing market could very well apply here.

“You could change all the zoning laws in Boston right now and create a more coherent system,” he said. “And because of the costs it would still take us years and years and years to build enough affordable housing for everyone who needs

This means that the usual ways of dealing with homeless people will continue.

Politicians can dress this up by giving it a catchy name — sit/lie — but, as anyone who has watched homeless gatherings come and go (the recent one on Kapiolani and Kalakaua is a good example), sit/lie is simply an act of desperation for political leaders whose hands are tied by the lack of alternatives.

Tents along the sidewalk at Moiliili Neighborhood Park as a sweep happens inside the park. The people move their belongings on the public sidewalk to avoid having their possessions taken.
Honolulu will continue to have the same look, the same feel, the same homeless hot spots as we wait for the world to change. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Meanwhile, the people here who work with the homeless day to day are the real heroes. They are secular saints because every day they perform small miracles. Watch the Honolulu Emergency Services C.O.R.E team in action.

These workers understand how small and temporary these miracles are. People they help in the streets will almost surely stay on the streets. They have nowhere else to go.

Some Boston homeless advocates have criticized Jim O’Connell for using resources that should have gone for developing affordable housing. His answer: “This is what we do while we’re waiting for the world to change.”

For now, and for a long time, Honolulu will continue to have the same look, the same feel, the same homeless hot spots. Waiting for the world to change.

How do those of us who aren’t homeless accommodate yourselves to this stubborn status quo you find so disgusting?
I am not going to end by going all moral on you. You don’t need me to remind you about charity, sympathy and understanding. I understand how hard that can be. I have a hard time myself.

Still, living in a dream world fueled by flawed stories has its costs. One is to become more punitive by criminalizing the homeless. That’s unjust as well as impractical.

The other is to fall for the magic of policymaking that is based on good ideas but ignores how long it will take to make the policy work. That, I’m afraid, describes affordable housing plans in Hawaii.

Instead, think about how you, your family and friends decide to accommodate yourselves to the homeless.
Do you keep the same flawed stories? Do you let your fear and disgust keep you from doing things and going places that you like? Do you develop strategies that make you more comfortable?

The flawed homeless story is powerful because it makes people with homes feel less precarious. In fact, though, the affordable housing crisis makes so many of the rest of us feel precarious.

When it comes to housing, we are all in this together, not out of charity but out of shared vulnerability. Because of this vulnerability, the homeless may remain. But your kids may leave.

Read this next:

John Pritchett: Down The Drain

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About the Author

Neal Milner

Neal Milner is a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii where he taught for 40 years. He is a political analyst for KITV and is a regular contributor to Hawaii Public Radio's "The Conversation." His most recent book is The Gift of Underpants. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Latest Comments (0)

Not quite Neal. While you allude to "high tech workers could afford…" You also avoid the use of the word demand substituting "growth" . The more interesting question is how can a local housing market produce median home prices unaffordable to median income households? Years ago I calculated whether a median income household could qualify for a mortgage on median priced condo and the answer was they wouldn’t. When I mentioned this while delivering a paaper on the supply and demand for housing in Honolulu at the Western Economic Association meeting, the economist from the federal reserve said he now understood why the fed has such loose income requirements for mortgages in Hawaii. In answer to this question the substance of my paper was the flow of real estate investment into Hawaii that has nothing to do with shelter. The effect is to drive up the price of land, and the buy and hold investment strategy pulls land and homes off the market and shifts the supply curve up and back while shifting the demand curve out, and the cycle of price increases and investment feeds a vicious circle. This actually began in the 2000s and can be traced to the. Increasingly unequal income distribution.

Lboyd · 10 months ago

Affordable housing is only part of the issue, and increasing such alone will do little to nothing to fix homelessness in Hawaii.Even if I had a rental for $200/mo. many homeless individuals would still fail my qualification process on other factors such as credit history and perhaps job history/references, especially if addiction was an issue. Mental health is another factor that needs to be considered along with what our government does to enable/encourage the perpetuation of the homelessness cycle, that is, encouraging a sense of learned helplessness. Democratic cities often see the most homelessness because of the welfare policies set in place to encourage and enable such behavior.To be clear, I'm not saying government shouldn't be involved in helping people. In fact I'd argue welfare payments should be more than they are now. Rather, I'd suggest our govt. look at who is getting this money, and are these individuals truly deserving of such. That is, asking what are these individuals doing to get themselves out of their predicament and encourage those actions instead of encouraging inaction.

basic_citizen123 · 10 months ago

Thank you, Mr. Milner for highlighting the housing and policy making issues surrounding this population. You bring to light that the populations that make up homeless require tailored solutions in the mention of elderly, impoverished, and others.Here are a few related topics where additional articles from you and Ms. Fawcett would be appreciated:1. The affordable housing narrative appears to focus mostly on new inventory. Like the preschool data set presented by Lt Gov Luke today, the public was given insight into re-use and other time-to-market solutions. It would be useful to inform the public about the same for affordable housing for the homeless.2. Policy solutions need to be balanced to include public concerns about health and safety. Example: Ms. Fawcett wrote about the Diamond Head encampments. Some have been there for 20 years. Why? There are posted signs that say "no passage beyond these signs" . Yet, encampments grow and there are no public toilets nearby. Despite the signs, HPD says their hands are tied. They "don’t want the ACLU accusing them of discriminatory practices" . Balanced policy making includes enforcement, public safety, and solutions.

Jessie_3333 · 10 months ago

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