Denby Fawcett: Who Can Afford 'Affordable Housing' In Hawaii? Certainly Not Low-Income Families - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Denby Fawcett

Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Hawaii needs to find a way to provide more units for low-income families or the homeless crisis will get worse.

The term “affordable housing” begs the question: affordable for whom?

Donʻt be misled into thinking a big dent is being made in Hawaii’s housing crisis when developers boast about the affordable condos for sale or rent in their new buildings.

What the developers usually mean is they have held lotteries for a limited number of “affordable” condos for sale  — usually 20% of their stock they are required to offer at below market price to get zoning permits in certain areas. 

These units are so-called workforce housing — affordable to qualified working people, often couples with two incomes or young professionals beginning their work lives. 

Workforce housing is definitely needed, but it does not come close to solving the stateʻs pressing demand for what James Koshiba calls “deeply affordable housing,” which he characterizes as rentals for no more than $500.

That is quite a bit cheaper than what the Honolulu Board of Realtors lists as the average rent on Oahu for a studio, $1,650, and a one bedroom, $1,988.

Koshiba, the state’s homeless coordinator, says “the gap between income and housing costs is why we have a homeless crisis to begin with.”

He says more units are needed to help people at the lowest end of the income scale — individuals taking in $20,000 to $25,000 a year.

“Most people experiencing homelessness have incomes but not enough to pay for rental housing,” he says. They spend years cycling in and out of temporary shelters and emergency housing, often giving up after many failed attempts to find a permanent rental.

He says deeply affordable rents need to remain affordable in the future because most people seeking such units are unable to increase their incomes due to chronic illnesses, advanced age, prior criminal records, lack of education and other disabling conditions that keep them stuck in low-paying jobs.

Affordable Housing Kuilei Place Apartments
Developers of Kuilei Place planned in Moiliili have condos for sale categorized by the state as “affordable” for families earning $104,500-$156,600 a year, but this is workforce housing not the kind of deeply affordable housing needed by many Hawaii residents. (Ku‘u Kauanoe/Civil Beat/2023)

Struggling To Get By

Not only do the homeless need deeply affordable rental housing but also many others including older adults and military veterans struggling to get by on their Social Security checks or federal disability benefits.

“The need is very great. The population of families living paycheck to paycheck before the pandemic was already substantial. Inflationary costs following the pandemic have only added more financial burden to many families’ household budget,” says Betty Lou Larson, legislative liaison for Catholic Charities Hawaii.

Larson says 75% of Catholic Charities’ housing assistance program clients earn under the 2023 federal poverty level of $16,770 for a household of one in Hawaii.

“Many rental apartments are not affordable to our clients,” says Larson.

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Koshiba says among the ways to create deeply affordable housing are expanding rental housing vouchers, converting unused buildings into rentals and erecting new rental buildings.

Rentals for the lowest-income earners can be found in public housing projects — most of them with long waitlists — or by getting Section 8 vouchers — a program that offers rental assistance to low-income Americans but can take years to get.

There also are more creative new projects such as the tiny home developments, known as kauhale villages, which are less expensive to construct because individual renters share community bathroom and kitchen facilities.

HomeAid Hawaii Opens Doors at Kama’okū.
Gov. Josh Green is pushing the development of tiny home villages to provide an alternative for homeless people who otherwise couldn’t afford rent. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021)

Gov. Josh Green’s administration plans to build 12 more kauhale villages in the next three years. City housing officials are also creating more tiny home villages.

It is difficult to get a handle on exactly how many deeply affordable rental units are currently available or to estimate how many more will be needed in the future.

More Low-Income Units Needed

The Hawaii Housing Finance and Development Corp.‘s website has a statewide affordable rental inventory list, but the agency says its list is not definitive. 

“There is no comprehensive list of all affordable rentals, much less one for just extremely low-income units,“ says Gordon Pang, housing information officer for HHFDC.

HHFDC is the state agency responsible for encouraging developers to build more affordable housing by assisting them with construction financing and other incentives including low-income housing tax credits, low-interest loans and bond financing.

Pang says the state homeless coordinator’s interest in helping Hawaii’s most needy with deeply affordable rentals for $500 or less can be done.

“This is achievable and HHFDC’s tools can play a key role in making this happen. But it requires rent subsidies and services provided by other agencies,” says Pang.

One problem in discussing deeply affordable rentals is there is no lead agency to coordinate all the different federal, city and state efforts to create not just affordable rental units for the needy but more affordable housing options for all levels of society.

People working for government and nonprofit housing agecies say there could be more  collaboration and a better definition of duties between them.

Nani Medeiros, the state’s chief housing officer, told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that one of her missions is to work with every state agency that deals with housing and their counterparts in the counties to find duplicated efforts and to get rid of rules and regulations that add to housing costs and delays.

Reducing Barriers

The city is also looking at ways to reduce the barriers developers face to construct affordable housing.

“We are looking at what we can do to facilitate the developent of more housing faster,” says Denise Iseri-Matsubara, the head of the mayorʻs Office of Housing and Homelessness.

Iseri-Matsubara says the city is moving ahead to build affordable housing for very low wage earners as well as for all residents to try to stop the rising tide of outmigration from the state.

She says more people leaving Hawaii reduces the tax base resulting in less revenue coming in to address community problems that made people leave the state in the first place, including affordable housing.

Iseri-Matsubara, who was the head of HHFDC before she came to the city, says it is not easy: “Affordable housing is a longstanding and complex issue.”

Government is more focused on this issue now than ever before because the lack of affordable housing is one of the key reasons people are leaving the state, taking their talents with them.

And at the low end of  income scale, the lack of deeply affordable housing is a key reason increasing numbers of people — many with talents and gifts to give the community if they could stabilize their lives  — are now living in limbo on the streets.

The need for housing is the same for everybody, but people experiencing homelessness donʻt have the option of moving away to find it.

Struggling To Get By” is part of our series on “Hawaii’s Changing Economy” which is supported by a grant from the Hawaii Community Foundation as part of its CHANGE Framework project.

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About the Author

Denby Fawcett

Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Latest Comments (0)

Two problems with building more affordable units like Kauhale village, the state and the carpenters union. The state for being indecisive, inefficient and cumbersome. And the union, which requires anything built by government be done only with union builders, makes the inability to bring in pre-fab, pop-up, or any other type of modular home, a violation of state contract, impossible.

wailani1961 · 1 month ago

Hawaii is unaffordable to average people who live and work here. That’s why their kids who grew up here leave after high school or college and never come back. We’re losing the best and brightest of our future generation. We had a chance this legislative session with proposed legislation to eliminate the GET on groceries. The legislators voted against it because they feared the loss of revenue. They would have less money to spend on pork barrel projects making it harder to get re-elected. They threw out term limit legislation too. Yet they keep getting elected. Why?Eliminate the GET on essential items like food, clothing, medicine, and rent as well as limit the time politicians can spend in office, and Hawaii will be more affordable. Will we ever see the day?

WildJim · 1 month ago

Many assume that the lack of affordable housing leads directly to homelessness. But data to support this is scant. Yes - if you're income is in the lower quartile, you're not going to be able to buy a house or rent an apartment. But, just like many of us experienced during college, you can share an apartment with others for a fraction of normal rent. Not luxurious, but more comfortable than living on the street.The reason why folks are homeless is not only because they have low income. They also have contributing factors like drug addition, criminal histories, or simply an inability to get along with others. These factors likely have alienated friends, family, and even strangers in similar positions so they are not able to share a space.Should HNL prioritize housing for these folks? My vote is no. At some point, a city with limited resources needs to make choices. And our priorities should be the low to lower middle class that works, that makes an effort, and that doesn't have the hurdles of drug addiction or criminal history to deal with.

FutureNihon · 1 month ago

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