5 Tools To Disarm The Weaponization Of Affordable Housing - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Authors

Deja Ostrowski

Deja Ostrowski is a staff attorney for the Medical-Legal Partnership for Children in Hawaii. She is a longtime housing policy advocate and lecturer in law for Affordable Housing.

Jonathan Likeke Scheuer

Born and raised in Hawaii, Jonathan Likeke Scheuer is a consultant who helps clients manage environmental conflict. He has served as chair of the state Land Use Commission, vice chair of the Oahu Island Burial Council, and on nonprofit boards.

It’s critical to ask who exactly the housing is for, who will profit from it, and whether it’s actually affordable in Hawaii.

We badly need affordable housing for local people. More than just a popular political cry, this is a daily lived and personal struggle.

Unfortunately as the demand grows and as political attention rises, a significant number of our lawmakers, developers, and bureaucrats are using this basic need as a weapon.

The “affordable housing” cry has become so powerful that it is increasingly being used as an all-encompassing justification for any development project, regardless of the actual merits of a proposal or even how affordability is defined. If developers and their lobbyists simply demanded we cut environmental and cultural protections so they could be more profitable, there would be well-deserved howls of disapproval.

But now all these interests seem to need to do is suggest that their proposal is for “affordable housing” that will keep local families from moving away, and we need to cut “red tape” to make that possible. Suddenly developers are transformed from being profiteers into the praiseworthy defenders of Hawaii and our people.

To thwart political opposition, affordable housing is also being weaponized against anyone who publicly states any concerns with any project or proposal. Native Hawaiian and local voices raising concerns are often immediately dismissed, and individuals brave enough to speak are reduced to nothing more than NIMBYs, elitists, or “special interests.”

Perhaps most obnoxiously, leaders sometimes blame the very local families suffering from housing affordability for the crisis when they dare to raise concerns with particular projects.

When affordable housing as a concept is so elastic it becomes the justification stamped on every proposal, we ignore other critical problems. We overlook ticking time-bombs in agricultural sustainability, water availability, and unbalanced economic growth. Ironically, we disregard giving more scrutiny to what we ask of developers in return for the benefits they receive.

A recent example of this weaponization came from West Hawaii. Last August our leading state housing agency (the Hawaii Housing Finance and Development Corporation) and the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority refused to accept minor conditions on a permit for a controversial new water well they claim is necessary for “affordable housing.”

These conditions had been asked for by fishpond caretakers and others who know the critical value of groundwater flow to the coast that perpetuates near shore resources. A portion of the well HHFDC and NELHA want to develop would provide water to the Kamakana Villages housing and commercial development.

Defending the state agencies during a state Water Commission meeting, the Hawaii County mayor submitted testimony via his deputy managing director. The mayor’s representative insisted in impassioned oral testimony that the water was all that was needed to provide “thousands of affordable homes” for “…our friends, children, and extended ohana…” who are “…faced with the grim choice of leaving their beloved homes in search of a place where they can survive…”

By implication, the very Native Hawaiians who earlier in the meeting were expressing concerns about impacts of the new well on coastal ecosystems and cultural practices were painted as the very reason their own families were forced to move away. This all occurred even, as we explain more below, the “affordability” of the proposed homes is questionable at best.

Another example of this weaponization came from would-be developer Charles Wong of the controversial “Manoa Banyan Court” project on preservation zoned land, who dismissed critiques as solely self-interested. A review of criticism of the project, however, shows neighbors raising issues of substance.

There are concerns with other projects the developer has completed, and potential impacts on flooding, parking, traffic, and burials. Neighbors have asked for more evidence as to why this project deserves government subsidies and relaxed regulations when it is being built expressly as profit-generating affordable housing.

The Hawaii State Capitol is rife with this weaponization. In the past few weeks the Senate and House have considered (and passed forward some) bills that would reduce or eliminate land use, historic preservation, burial, and environmental laws for the production of housing at any income levels. Gov. Josh Green’s emergency order for the homeless, unveiled with a flourish during his State of the State and met with a standing ovation, suspended thirty laws with no clear articulation of how this was necessary to build homeless housing. More worrisome is the accompanying promise to unveil another, broader order for housing in general.

If we actually want to make progress on affordable housing and out-migration, this moment demands from us clear thinking and deliberate decision making. We need to reject the blind cutting of so-called “red tape,” deriding all concerned parties as “special interests,” and empty faith that individual proposals are silver bullets. Real progress will come from proposals that reflect an actual understanding of our history, our housing market, land use regulations, and who it is who actually needs help.

Fortunately, everyday locals who are being used in these battles can disarm this weaponization of affordable housing. Anytime a new law, emergency proclamation, or project is proposed, we can ask and demand answers to five questions.

The answers will reveal if what is proposed may actually produce affordable housing for local people in good locations, or if it is a use of affordable housing as a baton against us while they offer another handout to those who already have land and power in our islands.

No. 1 — Who Is The Housing Actually For?

The first tool in disarming the affordable housing war is straightforward: we need to ask who the housing is actually for? For so many projects or proposals, glossy stock photos of “local families” are held up as the image of the future residents.

These are often pictures of a straight, two generation family in a single family home, which alone misses the wide diversity of households and housing needs in our community.

From the Hawaii Housing Planning Study 2019 (HHFDC). Affordable housing remains out of reach for many in the islands.

Who actually can benefit from the housing being discussed is often very different. Most affordable housing developments in the state are in some way funded, regulated, or developed by the HHFDC, including the Kamakana Villages project that was supposedly for “our friends, children, and extended ohana…”

The truth is that in every single HHFDC project, there is no restriction to ensure units go to local families, Native Hawaiians, or even long term island residents.

Under the relevant state law and HHFDC rules, you could have arrived on a plane in Hawaii for the first time to sign your contracts and you are just as entitled to that unit as any other family in our islands.

No. 2 — Is It Actually Affordable Now?

The second question needed to neutralize nefarious uses of our affordable housing crisis is rarely raised: just how affordable will the units be?

This is especially important because much of what passes for affordable housing and qualifies for government funds, tax breaks, or exemptions is not really affordable. The state of Hawaii, without good reason, regularly includes homes sold or rented for people earning 140% of Area Median Income in the definition of affordable housing.

Many jurisdictions cap affordability for those earning 120% of AMI — which even itself is, by definition, for people with higher incomes than over half the population. To state that another way, when you define affordability at anything over 100% of AMI, you are taking taxpayer funds and other government resources from people who earn less than what half the population does, and giving them to people who earn more than they do. It is Robin Hood in reverse.

In comparison, the federal Housing and Urban Development standards are usually set at 80% AMI. The prices of for sale projects at 140% of AMI are already provided by the market, without subsidies, tax breaks, or exemptions from regulation.

Housing demand data from 2019 shows that with this expansive definition of affordable, 74% of the total housing needed by our state demand would qualify as ‘affordable.’ When the definition of “affordable housing” is so broad, it spreads government subsidies supposedly targeted to help deal with housing insecurity, and distributes them to people who by definition are in the better off part of the population.

Despite demand studies that show the greatest need at the lowest end of the income spectrum, we continue to subsidize development projects at the highest (and therefore most profitable) income levels allowed.

We can see the absurdity of how this actually works out in one of our first examples. While Hawaii County officials praised the “thousands of affordable homes” in Kamakana Villages, the truth is far different. Of the approximately 2,300 units planned, only just over 50% are required to affordable. Of the 50% that must be “affordable,” that can be entirely units that sell for a price affordable by buyers who earn up to 140% of AMI. The rest of the homes — just under 50% — can and most likely will be sold at market prices.

So while the rhetoric was to give up impact on environmental and cultural resources for claimed affordability, the facts are that most these units will be at market rates, even as we know our “friends, children, and extended ohana” may not be able to afford them.

No. 3 — Will It Be Affordable In The Future?

The next question relies on asking about time horizons that extend beyond any politician’s current term — for how long will this unit be affordable?

There are a number of ways in which something that is affordable at move-in can quickly become less so. Rent or a mortgage is a very large part of monthly household expenses, but certainly not the only cost, and not the only payment that is tightly bundled to the cost of housing. If you are in an “affordable” home but have a driving commute three hours a day, you can be worse off than someone with a more expensive home that can take transit or walk.

For people with limited ability to walk or who lack reliable transportation, “affordable” units far from basic daily or weekly services can be a hardship and isolating.

Likewise, building dense condos with amenities equivalent to a hotel, with pools, meetings rooms, karaoke facilities and expensive maintenance costs will never be affordable to a family who can barely afford a small apartment in a walk-up.

“Affordable housing” projects that give developers gifts like breaks from zoning, parking, permitting, and fees usually count the return on investment solely in the number of new units created, with no evaluation of the real long-term return on this public investment. For example take the Hawaii Community Development Authority, a separate government body responsible for the development of Kakaako, but also wide swaths of land in Kalaeloa and Heeia.

Efforts to learn from mistakes of the past, such as with HCDA in Kakaako, have been shut down in favor of development interests rather than long term planning.

Gov. David Ige declined to approve rule amendments proposed by the HCDA board that would require developers to maintain affordable units for 30 years rather than five.

When our evaluations of projects consider only short term gains in new units, we lose sight of all the tools we have to keep housing affordable and support long-term housing security and sustainability for families.

Rent regulations and better evaluation of the “affordable housing” developers are offering in exchange for subsidies and relaxed rules can keep housing affordable longer. Smart regulations and enforcement that make sure we maximize and realize returns on infrastructure development are key.

No. 4 — Are They Saying This Is Just A Hawaii Problem?

The fourth tool requires us to ask if the proposal itself, or responses to any criticism, lay out an argument that ignores the global and national roots of our local housing problems. Our affordable housing problem is not unique to Hawaii or caused only by local forces.

This can be seen with the most cursory research. Addis Ababa has an affordable housing problem, as does Egypt. Nepal does as well, as does Jakarta. Locals are being priced out of Lisbon and Puerto Rico. Closer to home, there are affordable housing problems in Auckland, San Francisco, and even Las Vegas, where Hawaii families often go to escape high costs.

The regular attacks on the state Land Use Commission as the cause of our affordability crisis consistently suggest our problems are all local, as it cannot then explain the affordable housing problems in dozens of states that have no such regulatory body. Declarations of emergency that suspend laws as if those were the only causes of our problems embrace the myth that housing problems can be solved only with local action. The most recent emergency orders on homelessness are variations of orders that have been in place, renewed every few months, for the last 15 years.

This perpetual state of “emergency” has allowed the repeal of regulations and calls to streamline development, and are repeatedly heralded as the “silver bullet” to produce affordable housing. Yet, our crisis persists.This is in part because of forces far beyond our shores or immediate control.

There are absolutely things that county and state governments can do to build units or facilitate housing production, particularly of affordable homes. But overall global housing markets are pushed by huge forces that end up impacting price at the local level. Global and national demographic trends, economic cycles, interest rates, commodity price fluctuations and supply chain constraints can all drive prices upwards.

More significantly, no amount of supply can meet an insatiable demand. In Hawaii there is an unfillable demand for housing at all price points, including affordable ones, because our home is a desirable place to live.

To pretend that we are a purely a local market and increasing supply will alone solve our problems is disingenuous.

No. 5 — Who Is Profiting?

We have a variety of state programs that streamline development, all with little required in terms of affordable housing. In HCDA’s core jurisdiction of Kakaako, taxpayers funded massive development of new infrastructure and relaxed regulations allowed for dense development and parking giveaways. The return to citizens has been chiefly a massive building of market and luxury residences.

The costliest tax-payer funded infrastructure development in the history of our state, the Honolulu rail project, has brought new value to land owners along its corridor along with relaxed regulations, zoning, height and density allowances and reduced parking requirements. Unfortunately, the first projects to benefit from our infrastructure have been luxury hotel units that each respectively gave just $3 million to an affordable housing fund and “air rights” in return for relaxed regulations and zoning.

Rail station construction continues including the stop at the airport. The project has resulted in new value for some properties. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

The value of the parking bonuses afforded to the wealth management conglomerate developing the parcels were worth the $3 million alone. Nearly seven years have passed and both projects have yet to break ground on what was promised as “dynamic mixed use” re-developments needed to reap the benefits of rail investment. No new affordable housing units have yet been brought on the market after those giveaways.

The most recent developers taking advantage of our relaxed regulations for transit along with rail infrastructure subsidies are wealth management groups. Providing “affordable housing” has now become so profitable, it is built expressly for that purpose alone.

The Manoa Banyan Court Development is explicitly proposed, in part, to provide income — albeit for a non-profit organization. But nowhere is there documentation of the need, or analysis if the “affordable housing” then will remain affordable when profit is the goal.

What happens if the proposed income of the housing development above operating costs per month far exceeds any possible needs for maintenance of the cemetery?

Defusing The Trigger Before The Bomb Goes Off

While the need for affordable housing is being used as a weapon, the actual lack of affordable housing is also exploding in the lives of everyday people.

Huge numbers of our people make daily decisions on how to balance the need for the most basic housing against other daily needs and modest desires. Homelessness and outmigration explode families, in some cases altering millennia long ancestral ties to the islands.

Yet when affordable housing is weaponized, we ignore much of what makes us unique. We continue to need community input and planning where we also need densification and re-development.

Environmental, cultural, and historic preservation regulations are not just bureaucratic speed bumps developed to make sure Hawaii never changes. Zoning and permitting, community development plans, parking requirements and height limits are also not just “red-tape.”

We need to plan for the places we hold dear, where we have water resources, where we need land for food security, where our ancestors rest, and where we need to preserve places for generations to come.

This is especially true in Hawaii, where many of our laws directly trace back to Native Hawaiian land and resource management principles. To throw everything away because “affordable housing” has been stamped on every project runs the risk of creating a new crisis and a new time bomb, where we shove people anywhere and let developers run the conversation of where development should go, based on what is most profitable.

The consequences of the weaponization of affordable housing are significant. It diverts us into arguments over legislation that will not address our issues, and into litigation over proposals. It leads to a lack of clarity on how to distinguish good projects from bad ones.

Our hyper-focus on only local circumstances and causes sets unrealistic expectations, and paradoxically also a lack of demand for national support. Overall, it stops us from making progress on what is one of our most critical problems.

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About the Authors

Deja Ostrowski

Deja Ostrowski is a staff attorney for the Medical-Legal Partnership for Children in Hawaii. She is a longtime housing policy advocate and lecturer in law for Affordable Housing.

Jonathan Likeke Scheuer

Born and raised in Hawaii, Jonathan Likeke Scheuer is a consultant who helps clients manage environmental conflict. He has served as chair of the state Land Use Commission, vice chair of the Oahu Island Burial Council, and on nonprofit boards.

Latest Comments (0)

"The truth is that in every single HHFDC project, there is no restriction to ensure units go to local families, Native Hawaiians, or even long term island residents.Under the relevant state law and HHFDC rules, you could have arrived on a plane in Hawaii for the first time to sign your contracts and you are just as entitled to that unit as any other family in our islands."This is absolutely false.The below text is directly out of a Development Agreement between a Developer and HHFDC regarding Sales Requirements:b. Be a "Qualified Resident" as that term is defined under the HHFDC Laws. A qualifed resident is a person who is:1) a citizen of the United States or a permanent resident alien;2) at least 18 years of age;3) a legal resident of the State of Hawaii who now physically resides in the State of Hawaii and shall physically reside in the unit purchased;You need to prove you are a current resident when you apply for an affordable unit. Then 2-3 years later when the project is nearing completion, HHFDC reviews your application AGAIN to check that you still qualify.

RealLifeBuyer · 6 months ago

Thanks for a thoughtful analysis that highlights some of the important factors, but they forgot to offer some solutions. They brilliantly show that government has been misleading us, and has been a complete failure in providing housing, but what can we do to change things?Public housing has gotten a bad rap over the years, but if done right, could be a major solution. In other words, the government is in full control from start to forever, building actually affordable rental units. For example, our $2 billion surplus could be used purchase land, pay for construction, then retain full ownership so the units can be rented with price controls.A related problem which can be solved with this strategy, is that Honolulu urban planning is a mess, with no focus on wise development of urban neighborhoods.We could build up the primary urban center, from Kaimuki to Kalihi, and transform it into a more livable, yes affordable, community, with shops, recreation and transit available to a more dense settlement.One tactic to accomplish all this is for government to purchase and consolidate under-utilized urban lots, and then build, build, build.

denniscallan · 6 months ago

When I read an article like this, I like to imagine an alternate universe where were are discussing a supply crisis of another basic human right: food, rather than shelter. Imagine reframing the above points in that context:"1. Yes, there's a famine, but we shouldn't grow more food because it might go to the wrong people.""2. Yes, there's a famine, but we shouldn't give hungry middle-income families access to affordable food, only lower-income families.""3. Yes, there's a famine, but we should repeal time limits on food price controls that make starting a new farm financially feasible. It should be price-controlled forever or the farm shouldn't exist at all.""4. Yes, there's a famine, but come on, aren't a lot of other places around the world suffering from hunger too?""5. Yes, there's a famine, but if we grow enough food to actually feed hungry people, some corporations might also make a profit. And that's bad."Doesn't any moral person find these arguments repugnant? Wouldn't we refuse to accept them in a food supply crisis? So why do we accept them in a supply crisis of another basic human right?

okaykakaako · 6 months ago

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