Proposed legislation would fund a pilot program with locations in urban Oahu.

For nearly three years, Cassie Armstrong has lived in a cozy two-bedroom apartment that she shares on Hawaii island.

The pre-K teacher and her roommate split their monthly rent of $1,150. Travel to her job at Kohala Elementary School is a convenient nine-minute drive. 

Armstrong said living in teacher housing is an upgrade from where she was previously — in a garage with an outdoor shower, no paved walls or floors and no stove. 

“Moving into teacher housing was great,” Armstrong said. “It feels like I was coming into an actual home.” 

But her housing situation is coming to an end as Armstrong was only allowed to stay for three years.

Now she has until the end of May to find a new place.

With limited housing options in her area, Armstrong said her worst-case scenario is moving back home to Illinois. 

Waimea is one of the various locations on Hawaii island and parts of Maui county where teacher housing is available. Oahu and Kauai do not have dedicated teacher housing. (Ku’u Kauanoe/Civil Beat/2019)

Currently the Hawaii Department of Education’s teacher housing is only intended to provide teachers with temporary housing in rural areas with limited affordable housing. 

The DOE allows teachers to live in cottage-style housing for three years in Kohala, Honokaa, Kau, Waimea and Molokai. It’s five years in Hana and Lanai, but housing is not guaranteed year-to-year, according DOE documents obtained by Civil Beat.

However, there’s no teacher housing on Oahu and Kauai.

There are currently 51 rentable teacher housing units available statewide, the documents show.

They are between 20 and 50 years old, and several more are closed for major repair or demolition. Maintenance costs are paid out of the rental income generated.

Karen de Brum and her family lived in teacher housing in Lanai for about five years. (Courtesy: Karen de Brum)

Originally the counties were responsible for building teacher housing, transferring the dwellings to the DOE after construction. But the responsibility was handed off several times to various state agencies like the Hawaii Housing Authority and the Hawaii Community Development Corp.

In the early 2000s, the responsibility for teacher housing was wholly transferred to the DOE.

Lanai High School teacher Karen de Brum lived in a two-bedroom teacher housing apartment in Lanai between 1995 and 2003 with her husband and children.

She said the education department would continuously inform her that she would be getting a roommate, although it never happened.

“If you’re planning to stay in Hawaii, teacher housing helps because there’s a place for teachers to go when they get hired from off island,” she said.

Finally Coming To Oahu?

Hawaii lawmakers are now weighing proposals to build teacher housing in various locations on Oahu.

Last year, lawmakers proposed a measure that would have helped build affordable rentals for new teachers near Ewa Beach by allowing the state to buy land behind Holomua Elementary School for developing up to 300 units. It died in a conference committee between representatives and senators late in the session. 

Lt. Gov. Sylvia Luke, who was one of the introducers of the measure last year, said the bill didn’t make it because it needed additional planning to build teacher housing in that area to make it attractive for a developer.

The push to build teacher housing comes at a critical time as Luke and state lawmakers are advancing the universal pre-K plan, which overlaps with the need to double the pre-K teacher workforce. 

Waipahu High School is one site considered for the School Facilities Authority to pilot teacher housing on Oahu. (David Croxford/Honolulu Civil Beat/2023)

Senate Bill 941 would allocate $185 million to the DOE’s construction arm, the School Facilities Authority, to build teacher housing at Waipahu High School, Nanakuli High School and Mililani High School.

The appropriations are $65 million for Mililani, $60 million for Nanakuli and $60 million for Waipahu and would need to be spent in the next two fiscal years.

Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz, who chairs the Ways and Means Committee, set the appropriation for SB 941, and said the catalyst to build teacher housing was the availability of funds for the projects, and Luke working with the School Facilities Authority to make sure the job is done. 

“There’s very little confidence in that agency, but because the lieutenant governor is involved, we’re seeing progress being made,” Dela Cruz said. 

The agency only has three staff members and was already tasked with building or renovating 200 preschool classrooms by June 2024. 

Separately, House Bill 497 would require the School Facilities Authority to conduct a feasibility study of building teacher and workforce housing at the Queen Lydia Lili’uokalani Elementary School in Kaimuki, which shut down because of low enrollment

The Senate bill is scheduled for a joint hearing before the House Housing and Education committees on Tuesday, while the House bill awaits a hearing.

Hawaii District# Units% OccupancyDescription
Kohala9100%6-2 BDRM Duplexes, 3-3 BDRM
Honokaa4100%1-2 BDRM, 2-3 BDRM, (1-4 BDRM closed for repair/demolition)
Kau250%2-2 BDRM Duplexes
Waimea10100%4-Studios, 4-1 BDRM, 2-2 BDRM
Maui District# Units% OccupancyDescription
Hana*1080%4-Studios, 6-3 BDRM, (2 studios closed, roof leaks)
Lanai* 1290%4-3 BDRM, 6-2 BDRM, 1-1 BDRM, (2-closed for repairs)
Molokai*8100%2-3 BDRM, 6-2BDRM
Inventory of teacher housing in Hawaii. *Indicates off-campus housing. (DOE/February 2023)

It is still unclear what the housing on Oahu would look like, who would qualify for it and whether it would also just be temporary. 

Luke said she would like to see a mixed-use facility where teacher housing is built on the second floor and classrooms are on the first. 

Chad Keone Farias, executive director of the School Facilities Authority, said the agency must do a feasibility study, adding there’s also a need for teacher housing on the Leeward side of Oahu and Central Oahu.

“We’re trying to tackle the bigger housing issue and the retention and attraction issue of teachers to our state,” Farias said.

Farias said the agency and the Hawaii State Teachers Association are conducting a needs survey, although he didn’t say when the results will come out. 

He presumes the demand would be for a mix of one- to two-bedroom apartments, and three-bedrooms to attract families. 

“The national model is to provide assistance for six to eight years,” Farias said. “In Hawaii, it takes a little more than eight years to save up for a down payment on a house of $1 million when you’re a teacher making $50,000 a year.”

Logan Okita, vice president of the Hawaii State Teachers Association, echoed the need for expanded teacher housing in the islands.

“This is the way to invest in teachers so that, especially, our younger and newer teachers are not starting their careers off in debt and unable to live as professionals who contribute to their communities,” she said. 

Civil Beat’s education reporting is supported by a grant from Chamberlin Family Philanthropy.

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