Economy Hawaii PoliticsWritten by Shara Enay On 23 March 2011

ThinkTech Hawaii hosted a half-day conference today to discuss one of Hawaii’s toughest and longest running problems: affordable housing. “Housing in Hawaii: What’s Holding it Up?” featured over two dozen panelists representing the public and private sectors, including Big Island Mayor Billy Kenoi, Harry Saunders, the president of Castle and Cooke, Marc Alexander, who is the governor’s homeless coordinator, and Micah Kane, trustee for Kamehameha Schools, among others.

The speakers were asked to identify challenges but, more importantly, to provide solutions on how to solve Hawaii’s affordable housing crisis. Although many of the ideas were not unique and have been discussed for generations, today’s forum was important, insightful and necessary if the state is serious about solving this problem, which will only get worse if we don’t do something now.

Here are some of my takeaways:

-We can’t rely on the private sector to solve our affordable housing crisis. The government needs to get involved and provide subsidies to make development feasible. That includes less regulation, streamlining the permitting process and providing land for affordable housing.

-We need to look at more long-term regional planning versus building one home or condo at a time.

-The state needs to review the current land-use laws to make sure they are relevant. We can’t operate under our grandfather’s laws.

-Hawaii’s income levels aren’t the reason locals can’t afford homes; it’s because supply does not meet demand, which is what drives up prices.

-Not everyone agrees with rail but it does create opportunities to build more affordable housing along the route. There will be 21 stations and each provides an opportunity to create a different community.

-The answer isn’t just to build more homes; we have to focus on the type of houses that we’re building. Vertical development is one way to solve the problem. Most planners agree that there needs to be a shift to more compact, mixed-use development.

-We need to identify who is responsible for providing affordable housing – government, private sector or the community. The answer: everyone.

-If we change the phrase from “affordable housing” to “opportunity housing” it changes the perspective of people getting a hand out to a hand up. Self-help builds could have a tremendous impact on the mindset and cycle of poverty.

-The key is to engage the people that would benefit from affordable housing so they can be a part of the long-term solution.

-Businesspeople need to share their thoughts and concerns with as many legislators as possible and get involved in the lawmaking process.

-Be careful what you ask for, especially when you’re asking for exemptions and expediting permits. There are rules and codes for a reason. Public safety is the No. 1 concern.

-We need more market research to understand the buyer’s interests so developers can design communities that work with buyers’ lifestyles. It’s important to focus on providing affordable housing but we need to be mindful of the livability of the communities that are created.

-The governor’s immediate plan to address the issue of homelessness is to begin by focusing on the severely ill population of homeless with the greatest need. Secondly, government needs to enforce tough love because the entire community owns parks and bus stops that are being taken over by the homeless.

-Housing is a need but a four-bedroom house with a pool is a not right. Some things have to be earned so people need to hunker down their spending and save and plan like the old days.

-Not everyone is in the position to be a homeowner. More effort needs to go into creating emergency and transitional housing and affordable rentals.

-Transportation is a key element in affordable housing. If people can’t afford to buy homes where they work, the state needs to make it easier for them to commute from where they can afford to live.

-Not no can, can. People need to take more blame and give more credit instead of taking all the credit and giving all the blame.

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Shara Enay

Shara Enay is a writer for Hawaii Business magazine. She is a graduate of Kaimuki High School and the University of Hawaii at Manoa. In her free time, she enjoys spending time with family and friends, going to the beach, traveling and watching UH sports.

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