Friday, December 05, 2014


Comments from Hawaii Appleseed on microunits–must read

Here are two comments by Jenny Lee of Hawaii Appleseed. They’re too valuable to leave hidden as comments. I edited only to remove the email address so Jenny doesn’t get spammed.

Don’t miss getting a copy of the report at the link below.

Thank you, Jenny, this is awesome.


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]
# posted by Anonymous Hawaii Appleseed : December 5, 2014 at 4:37:00 PM HST

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.

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.
# posted by Anonymous Hawaii Appleseed : December 5, 2014 at 4:38:00 PM HST


Big mahalo, Jenny Lee for the response. I lived most of the last dozen years by myself in a 408 square foot studio apartment that by its size fits the definition for “microunit” but is actually quite spacious for a studio apartment in Honolulu. Of the four studios on my floor, mine was the only one having to accommodate a single occupant. A couple with a new baby was next door. I found my 408 square feet very accommodating for myself.

Without having to describe my current accommodations, I can say that I would find a reasonably priced (which is to say affordable) 220 square foot unit do-able depending on condition and location. I think many people would. Certainly the single people now living a tenuous existence on the sidewalk would find something with a built in sink, shower, and toilet, unimaginable luxuries.

I put the remediation of homelessness into two categories: (1) “Fixes,” which are quick, do-able under the current scheme of things, but not necessarily permanent, and (2) “Solutions,” which are grander and systemic. I consider microunits a good and desirable fix but not a solution.

I’m reluctant to propose as a solution something that would create a caste of poor single people literally walled off from one another. I don’t know if there have been studies but it sounds a lot like a mushroom farm for psychos. The single occupancy rule will discourage members of this caste from forming relationships with others. This sounds too much like the setting of a dystopian Philip K. Dick epic for me. But as a fix for sidewalk dwelling singles, fine.

Also, the microunit “apodment” solution may fit townies like you and me, but much of our population comes from traditions of living together in open areas. I’d like to see these types of communities allowed to arise as a fix to the current situation as well as for the potential of these communities becoming part of the solution.

Using simple arithmetic, I must understand that I am reaching the end of my poor sinner’s life, and I face the realization that my last days will probably be in a community with other poor people, and not in an apodment microunit.

So yes, although our take on microunits is slightly different, I (and most of us, I’m sure) very much appreciate your work and I will support your campaign for microunits as a fix. We will continue to work together, yet separately, as though in adjoining microunits.


Thanks to you both for your thoughtful comments. I think Doug put it well--microunits are ok as a "fix". But we need to have other solutions that address poverty in the state directly.

As an example of how creating a large underclass of individuals and families living in tiny units is problematical, remember that Hawaii once aspired to being a center of high tech. Imagine a company thinking of relocating to Oahu only to find that its employees would have to live in little boxes. No one would find that prospect to be an incentive.

Indeed, substandard housing would just figure in with bad traffic, crushing energy bills, and other negative aspects of a working class existence in Honolulu to assure that the brain drain will continue, and that attracting new business to the city will remain exceedingly difficult if not impossible.


A very good conversation. I have great respect and affection for the three of you. Honolulu is blessed by the work you do.

Some readers may not know Jenny Lee and Appleseed are simultaneously attacking the housing problems on multiple fronts. Their support for micro-units is only one of several concrete and practical suggestions they are making. In fact, several of the groups most active in fighting for affordable housing were also at the core of the fight to raise the minimum wage to help low-income workers afford to pay their rents, including Appleseed, PHOCUSED, Catholic Charities and FACE.

Appleseed, and these other groups, are also pushing to liberalize laws to allow more "Accessory Dwelling Units," apartments attached to existing houses, as a quick fix to increase the supply of affordable housing. They are calling for developers to be required to create genuinely affordable rental housing in exchange for permits to build profitable "at market" housing.

Appleseed has also been very vocal in criticizing the City's policies to criminalize the homeless.

I support Doug's call for social housing arrangements, but in Jenny's extended comment on micro-housing, she proposes micro-units be supplemented by common areas conducive to more social living. While I love Doug's invocation of Phillip K. Dick, I spent some of my college years living in a dorm. I have also watched my parents spend their senior years in retirement centers, where smaller apartments are also enhanced by communal areas. I am not convinced small apartments are a horrible, dystopian way to live.

On my recent trip to Eugene Oregon, I visited a small community of previously houseless residents in "Opportunity Village." They slept in what are being called "Tiny Houses," most measuring 8' x 8'. Half the units had loft beds. There were 30 such dwellings, supplemented by a 30' diameter yurt as their common "living room" and, when the weather was cold, the common heated sleeping room. It had internet access and common computers. They had a large common kitchen, a workshops with tools, a shower, bathroom and laundry room. They practiced self-governance with direct democracy, their rules decided by vote.

How to categorize this living structure? Is it "transitional" or "emergency" housing? What happens if people find they like the community of village living and cannot find anything comparable in the outside world? The residents had been "houseless" prior to moving into the village, harassed by Eugene cops just as the homeless are harassed in Honolulu. It is definitely a step up, a "safe zone" from which they are not in fear of being driven by city officials. Where their few possessions are secure, they can remain warm and dry, receive mail, browse the internet, talk with friends, prepare and share meals.

Stanley Chang said last week the Sand Island project is moving forward. It was an odd statement, as if he was announcing a city policy on behalf of the administration. Does this mean he has been promised a housing-related job in the Caldwell administration? Stanley went so far as to call the Sand Island facility a "puuhonua," a "city of refuge." I can't speak for others, but I could support the construction of "safe zones" as "fixes" for homelessness. But they would have to respect the self-determination of the residents, along the lines of the Opportunity Village approach in Eugene, rather than the homeless intake center envisioned by the City for Sand Island, run with a top-down, supervised approach which views the residents as clients (at best) or semi-prisoners (at worst).

Thank you, Larry, Doug and Jenny for all you do and let's work to empower the homeless to take more control of their living conditions.

I really like the idea of micro units. A lot bigger than the car a lot of people sleep in. I remember a long time ago in Eugene, there was a facility called The Service Station, where anyone could walk in and get used odds and ends like clothes, food, TP, use the bathroom, phone, use the fax machine, receive mail, get a locker to store things, take a shower, do laundry, or use the open kitchen to cook. There was even a counselor on staff you could talk to if you needed someone to talk to. If you needed services you could pay $5 or so, or volunteer for an hour doing chores. Basically it was an Ohana house for people with no Ohana.

Many people here could benefit from that kind of aloha. Especially storage lockers.

I can't believe what inept politicians and cops we have in Hawaii who think solving the homeless problem means taking their stuff. Try having all your worldly possessions taken by guys with guns at 3AM... guys who tell you their job is to protect and serve. See how long it takes you to recover mentally from that and stop being homeless when all you can think about is how much you need to poop and drink water and eat and sleep and wash/dry your clothes and get out of the rain and heal your wounds but you can't because the cops took your clothes and soap and bike and tent and bed and food and meds and trash you were gonna recycle for cash.

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