Wednesday, December 03, 2014


220 square foot micro-units for Hawaii?

by Larry Geller

Let’s see… that’s 14.8 foot square including bathroom, but not, I think, including a closet.

This is actually in a draft bill which may be introduced into the Hawaii legislature.

And we do need real housing so that people can move off the street…

But is this real housing? And what about preventing people from losing their real housing as rents continue to skyrocket?

Hawaii needs a real housing solution, not a way to crate people up in little boxes.

I do split with those who call for micro-units as a housing solution—because the overall situation needs to be addressed as well. Apartments this small can be nothing more than a stop-gap solution while a better plan is implemented. Now, where is the better plan for low-income renters? How will real apartments with rent-controlled and affordable rentals be built? That’s the disappeared news.

See draft bills from today’s Housing & Homeless Task Force meeting here.

Maybe Honolulu’s future villages of crate-box housing will become something of a tourist attraction as people from around the world come to gawk.


Hi Larry, this is Jenny from Hawaii Appleseed and I wanted to speak to some of your thoughts and concerns. I ended up writing a lengthy response so I'll break this into two. Hawaii Appleseed has been in support of microunits because we believe that when done well, the would be a desirable and affordable housing option for low-income individuals, should they choose them.

I'll try to break down my comments, although they are in no particular order, and they'll need two posts.

- 220 sq. ft. is the minimum allowed under the current Honolulu building code, hence this number as a starting point. Only one person could live in a unit of this size. There is no formal definition of "microunits," and I have seen them defined as between that size and 450 sq. ft. or so. Many have been discussing microunits in the 275-350 sq. ft. range. These units must have a full bathroom as well as a kitchenette that contains at least a refrigerator, sink, and heating implement.

- Well-designed microunit buildings have common spaces that give what functions as additional living areas, balancing out the small size of the units. These might be indoor common areas, a larger communal kitchen, a centralized storage area, as well as outdoor gardens and other facilities. These actually can build a much sense of community for residents.

- Microunits are often located in convenient and desirable locations, meaning people spend more time outside of their units in the neighborhood. HCDA has allocated a plot of land on Cooke St. that would be an ideal location. Among younger individuals, there is a trend toward living in urban, walkable neighborhoods, and such a building would give many of those the opportunity to do so--and most importantly, create more housing for those who can't afford it anywhere on the market. One-third of renters on Oahu are households of one, and there are many demographics who these would be a good fit for: elders, young workers without the same need for storage, Housing First units, and so on.

- People will still have other options for one-bedroom apartments in other income-restricted developments or public housing, but this is a choice that even higher-income individuals have made in cities such as NY and Boston. Providing low-income people this same choice--a desirable location in a decent building in exchange for a lower rent or the ability to live on your own--is an option we believe they should have. In addition, by increasing density, more low-income people will have this choice, resulting in a greater mix of incomes in areas that are being left to the wealthy under the "free" market. While the small size is at tradeoff, it is one that generally comes with the territory of urban areas. For the designated affordable units, your rent will be the same depending on income, whether you are living in a one-bedroom in Ewa or a microunit in Kakaako--this is just one housing option that people may choose according to their preferences.

[Continued in my next comment]

Appleseed has continually fought for safe and adequate housing for low-income people in public housing projects. Based on the microunits that have been developed elsewhere, we do believe they can form quality housing and will give people additional options, such as living in a neighborhood they could not otherwise afford, or the opportunity to live on their own without a roommate. But most of all, they can create more deeply affordable housing, which is simply not being created on the rental market. Greater density in terms of unit size and land does help drive those costs down.

We agree that these must be done right, but the lessons of SROs remains fresh in everyone's minds--these will be decent, quality units. The popularity of these units elsewhere, as well as the satisfaction of their residents elsewhere, suggests this is an housing option that people should have access to, particularly those who are otherwise struggling to find afford larger or market rental units. And we certainly believe that an individual experiencing homelessness would prefer being a tenant in a decent private unit that does actually provide them with amenities, convenience, the ability to make ends meet, and most of all, dignity by creating units that may not be luxurious, but are comparable to those chosen by even the privileged.

And as for me personally, I would certainly consider living in a microunit: I highly value the ability to live alone, pay an affordable rent, spend time out in my neighborhood, and not need to own a car thanks to the location. This is not something that should be forced on everyone, but there is both a need and an actual interest.

If you haven't had a chance to, you might want to take a look at our report ( to see some more examples. And of course, please contact me ( if you'd like to discuss further--your input is always invaluable.

Apologies for the lengthy response, and thanks for keeping the conversation going! We need to grapple with the issues of what it constitutes decent housing, and your thoughts are much appreciated.

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