Friday, December 12, 2014


In Hawaii our housing crisis is one part of the larger poverty crisis that must be solved

This year, housing issues including homelessness, affordable housing, and Housing First were the overwhelming concerns of attendees at Kokua Council’s 11th Annual Community Forum last month.

by Larry Geller

Housing crisis is but one aspect of the larger problem of poverty in Hawaii

Across the islands, 1 out of every 5 Hawaii residents depends on food aid from the Hawaii Foodbank and its network of agencies, a new report reveals. That’s well above the national average of 1 in 7 people relying on food banks and feeding programs.

The website from which the pull-quote is snipped notes that 

In Hawaii, 123,000 households, made up of 287,000 residents, receive food assistance annually from the Hawaii Foodbank and its affiliates, according to the report. They include nearly 48,000 children and 46,000 senior citizens. The elderly made up much of the throng at the Kakaako pantry this week.

The article notes that those living in poverty struggle to feed themselves as well as to pay utilities and keep a roof over their heads.

The homelessness crisis is but the tip of this iceberg. Until we, as a society, tackle the problem of poverty in Hawaii, we will not find an easy solution to the housing crisis.

In the event of an unforeseen disaster, it will not be those living in luxury apartments or mansions who will go hungry (and perhaps die) but those who are having difficulty surviving today, right now, while the sun is shining and the tourists are coming.

Our economy is not working for us and it’s time to take a look at what can be done.

Check out the conversation that formed over at Comments from Hawaii Appleseed on microunits–must read (12/5/2014). Be sure to read the comments.

In that discussion, I am cautions about micro-units and even accessory dwelling units (“Ohana housing”) not because I think these are not useful approaches, but because I do not think they are adequate solutions to poverty in Honolulu. And because I think they will create an underclass rather than solving the larger economic crisis for everyone.

Sandbags work against a flood, but not against climate change. The housing climate in Honolulu has indeed changed, and we need to plan for a satisfactory solution on into the future.

I cannot see a long-term solution without rent control. Ohana units at present are likely fully occupied—either legally, with family members as intended, or illegally, as ordinary rentals. When we arrived in Hawaii and decided to rent a house, at about the time we moved in, construction was underway for an Ohana unit on the property. We had no relatives, it was to be occupied by strangers, at the market rate for rentals of that size. Every so often the illegal appliances were moved out so that an inspector could come visit.

That the city utterly fails at inspecting dwellings would seem to doom the plans to expand low-rental Ohana units. Check out the article about people living on scaffold apartments in the Honolulu Advertiser story linked from this article. If a property owner could get away with that, the city inspections are nothing more than a joke. So rents for these units could be anything at all.

How will rentals be kept down should more Ohana units be allowed? The city will be unable to regulate the units if it can’t improve its inspections or institute a workable method of regulation. We’re talking rent control, it seems.

Rent control is not a new concept. In this article I link to some source material.

Rent control can possibly be enforced through the tax system. If renters realized tax benefits, for example so-called nonrefundable tax credits, the process creates a regulatory path to be sure that landlords are not skirting set limits. There are ways to make it work.

We cannot simply hope that the need for affordable rentals can be met by micro-units or by the Ohana flavor of micro-units. Certainly, having those options available will help, but it is said that we need tens of thousands of apartments or homes available at an affordable rate. Part of the solution needs to be a mechanism for people to stay in the homes they now occupy. As a proposed remedy for homelessness, it won’t do to have micro-units occupied by people dropping out of current housing to downsize into those units.

We’re dealing here with a huge problem, and we’re saddled with a city government incapable of urban planning for the benefit of its citizens. Criticism of Kakaako condos aimed at the rich and ultra-rich is well-founded and should be a spur to getting busy with a comprehensive and inclusive urban planning process.


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