Civil Beat: Kailua Project Illustrates Affordable Housing Dilemma

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By Evelyn Aczon Hao, Keith Webster, John Kawamoto

July 15, 2020

People want more affordable housing — just not in their neighborhoods.

Many people are aware through personal experience that Hawaii has an affordable housing crisis. Perhaps they know someone who moved to the mainland because housing in Hawaii was too expensive for them. Or perhaps they themselves are living in housing that is inadequate for what they need, but is within their budget.

Statistics gathered by an Aloha United Way study (“ALICE: A Study of Financial Hardship in Hawaii”) show that hundreds of thousands of people in Hawaii are living paycheck to paycheck on survival budgets.

These people do not earn enough to cover the basic essentials of housing, food, child care, transportation, and health care — and that was before the pandemic. Housing is typically the biggest item in their budgets, which highlights the immense need for affordable housing.

A proposed affordable housing project in Kailua has some residents up in arms. Flickr: Eric Fredericks

In fact, Hawaii faces a shortage of tens of thousands of affordable housing units. So it is distressing that the construction of affordable housing is hindered by the affordable housing dilemma, which arises when an affordable housing project is proposed for a particular location.

The dilemma is this: The great majority of Hawaii’s residents recognize the need for more affordable housing. But when a project is proposed for their neighborhood, some residents may oppose that particular project even though it complies with all laws.

The typical reasons for opposition are as follows:

  • “The character of my neighborhood will change.”

  • “The building blocks the sun from my property for part of the day.”

  • “It will increase traffic.”

  • “More cars will be parked on the streets.”

  • “My view will be blocked.

In addition, misinformation about the project may circulate to give the project an unfavorable image.

The affordable housing dilemma arises because of competing factors. Although affordable housing projects have a compelling public purpose and benefit society as a whole, the people who live in proximity to these projects are disproportionately affected by localized factors.

Often, when government agencies hold public meetings to consider whether to approve an affordable housing project, neighborhood residents who oppose the project show up in numbers.

But only a few of the great majority of Hawaii’s residents who recognize the need for more affordable housing show up because the project does not individually affect them. Also, the families who would eventually move into the project are not yet in the picture and have no voice.

Kawainui Street Apartments

This dilemma is illustrated by the Kawainui Street Apartments, an affordable rental housing project of 73 units proposed for Kailua. It is located at the corner of Kawainui Street and Oneawa Street, the main street through the commercial district of Kailua.

About 95% of the apartments would be for local working families earning less than $72,300 per year. Monthly rents would be based on household income, starting at $521 for 1-bedroom apartments and $598 for 2-bedroom apartments. It is true affordable housing for Hawaii’s working families.

The Kawainui Street Apartments was the subject of a recent Kailua Neighborhood Board meeting. Housing advocates living in various communities throughout Oahu spoke in support of the project. However, many more Kailua residents expressed concerns and opposed the project.

The last affordable housing project was built in Kailua in 1992.

Similar concerns were raised in the past to oppose several affordable housing projects proposed for Kailua. None of these projects were approved. The last affordable housing project was built in Kailua in 1992.

Kailua is representative of many communities throughout the state that have rejected affordable housing proposals. No wonder the shortage of affordable housing statewide has increased for decades.

Solving Hawaii’s affordable housing will require a multitude of affordable housing projects built in communities throughout Hawaii. The decision on whether these projects will be approved or not will depend upon how the relevant government agencies resolve the affordable housing dilemma.

When considering a particular affordable housing project, will these government agencies give more weight to some people in the neighborhood of the project who oppose it?

Or will these agencies give more weight to the statewide crisis that Hawaii’s families are facing and the need to build affordable housing in communities throughout Hawaii?

Let’s hope that they take the side of affordable housing for Hawaii’s families.