Hawaii’s housing inventory lags far behind the need for homes — and the state’s policymakers have lagged in the efforts to narrow that gap.
This is nothing new. The steep regulatory climb that law requires for development — including the necessary reviews in a state where environmental issues are sensitive — and the inherent costs of land and construction in the islands all have slowed the pace of adding housing for decades.
But where a low housing supply meets a pent-up demand, high housing prices are the inevitable result. The monthly mortgage or rent bill represents the largest monthly expense for just about any household. Those whose pay is low or unstable often struggle to meet it — with many falling into homelessness.
And even if lawmakers succeed on their current aggressive proposals to add 17,000 units over the next five years, that initiative falls well short of what’s needed over that time period: 50,156 new homes for sale and rent.
That sobering figure comes from the new Hawaii Housing Planning Study, prepared by SMS Research & Marketing Services and released by the Hawaii Housing Finance & Development Corp.
Good data is crucial to solving the housing crisis, but information must be paired with the resolve to set, and meet, incremental benchmarks toward the goal.
Unfortunately, the early indications from the 2020 Legislature are mixed. The latest dispiriting setback came last week when two House panels balked at expanding the proposed system of village-style (“kauhale”) networks of tiny houses for the homeless, as proposed in House Bill 2112.
Initial work is underway on the state’s first kauhale, in Kalaeloa, and it shows promise as an affordable model using state lands and private partners and donations for construction. These kauhale have real potential to direct homeless families toward stability and prospects for a productive life.
The Kalaeloa project will continue, said state Rep. Joy San Buenaventura — but the Human Services and Homelessness Committee chairwoman wants to know more about who will be responsible for management and maintenance of the kauhale projects.
The first, the Kauhale Kamaile Project in Waianae, has shown promise as an affordable model using state lands and private partners and donations for construction. They have real potential to direct homeless families toward stability and prospects for a productive life.
Initial work on a second village has begun in Kalaeloa, and that project will continue, said state Rep. Joy San Buenaventura.
However, the representative, who chairs the Committee on Human Services and Homelessness, said she wants to know more about who will be responsible for management and maintenance of the kauhale projects.
As written, the bill leaves it to the lieutenant governor to designate the overseeing agency, and San Buenaventura said she wanted the attorney general to weigh in on whether that was the proper authority. Lt. Gov. Josh Green has been the principal champion of the concept but, as the representative suggests, it might be wise to settle the oversight issue in the legislation.
However, rather than advance the proposal for a $20 million, one-year pilot program, San Buenaventura’s committee, as well as the Committee on Housing, voted that the bill should support a study of the concept.
Surely such questions about the program’s organizational structure could be answered in the course of this legislative session and the bill amended accordingly.
The state’s homelessness initiatives are supposed to emphasize a “housing-first” approach: These would comprise permanent housing units that are needed, right now. Postponing expansion of the villages would be derelict in this crisis, in which the homeless are suffering and the community has been demanding action.
There is still time for this effort to get on track. The companion Senate Bill 2442 is moving, and can be the vehicle to replicate the kauhale solution for homeless families.
What’s hopeful this session is that the Legislature’s Democratic majority is firmly on the record for scaling up its affordable housing campaign. A central element is an investment of $200 million in financing for infrastructure enabling housing construction near the University of Hawaii at West Oahu.
Further, state Capitol leadership, backed by Gov. David Ige, has committed to finding state public lands that can be used to develop up to 17,000 units on 99-year leases. The aim, of course, is to yield homes that are more affordable, given that the land costs are assumed by the state.
That’s a goal the public should support — and hold their leaders accountable to delivering on the promise of truly affordable housing.
Correctly, state policymakers want to incentivize developers to produce the housing. The state owns land along the route of Oahu’s rail project, which itself should provide significant capacity.
Supplying land and infrastructure are substantial contributions, but the state can ill afford to give too much away. These are meant to be homes filling the most acute demand, so much of the development should be priced for the workforce earning around, or below, the median income level.
The Housing Planning Study underscores just how high the bar is set. SMS projected that 10,000 new homes are needed annually — a daunting figure, given that homebuilders have produced 2,675 annually between 2014 and 2017.
Such statistics should light a fire under elected leaders. For the sake of those in dire need of housing, legislators and policymakers must demonstrate that they feel this sense of urgency.