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New affordable housing development on Oʻahu only meets a fraction of demand

H housing vineyard.jpg
Noe Tanigawa

Oʻahu needs 5,200 units per year for five years to meet the demand for low-income housing, according to a 2019 study by the state Department of Business and Economic Development and Tourism.

So-called "low-income" individuals make 80% of the area median, or $67,700 per year, on Oʻahu in 2021.

How many low-income units did Oʻahu actually add this year?

Arjuna Heim is a researcher with Hawaiʻi Appleseed's Budget and Policy Center. She followed the Hawaiʻi Public Housing Authority's minutes through September tracking new projects.

"In terms of new projects that have been funded, when they are built, it will add a total of 435 units. Which is 8% of the need that we should be building to meet that 2019 housing study," Heim said.

The number actually available could be much less.

Heim found that 3,982 low-income units were funded in the past five years on Oʻahu.

Foo Pham is on the Housing Now committee of Faith Action, a community group that has been following housing issues for over 20 years. Their group sees the Aloha Stadium site redevelopment as a chance to finally provide the thousands of low-income units Oʻahu has missed over the years.

"I don't see an opportunity like this anywhere on Oʻahu," says Pham. "It's 98 acres, this site."

Pham's Housing Now coalition calls the stadium site an opportunity that cannot be wasted.

"Three former governors penned a letter explicitly stating the land should be used for housing, only housing," Pham continues. "So I think there is a large appetite throughout the community to make this a more serious discussion."

In its preliminary request for proposals, the state said it will not set housing or affordability requirements. The governor and certain agencies could set parameters, and Pham is hoping his group and others will have some input on development plans.

"We don't want to hear excuses that it's not profitable to build low-cost housing," Pham said, adding that it is a common rationale for developers. "At a certain scale, it's going to become profitable."

Earlier this year, the plan for the 98-acre stadium site was split into two projects, one to replace the stadium and another to provide housing, retail, restaurants, offices, and parking on the remaining 73 acres.

Early in December, the state Department of Accounting and General Services said the state would look for more funding from the legislature before requesting proposals on the stadium rebuild. Three finalists have already been selected to bid for that portion of the project.

Meanwhile, the legislature could set housing and affordability requirements for the acreage around the stadium. Pham said housing advocates will be lobbying for those low-income housing requirements in what the state's project website is calling the New Aloha Stadium Entertainment District, or NASED.

Noe Tanigawa covered art, culture and ideas for two decades at Hawaiʻi Public Radio.
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