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What does it take to build a community of tiny homes in Hawaiʻi?

Josh Green Kauhale Hui Mahiʻai ʻĀina Tiny Home Affordable Housing.jpg
Lt. Governor Josh Green
Former Lt. Gov. Josh Green tours the Hui Mahiʻai ʻĀina kauhale in Waimānalo in May 2019.

As the governor's appointed chief housing officer, Nani Medeiros is tasked with some of the state's most complex and nuanced issues.

Lucky for her, she isn't a stranger to the affordable housing sector. She said her current project, Kauhale, is the state's way of beginning to close the gap for low-income home ownership.

"It puts community at the center in the heart of addressing homelessness and houselessness, which is not an approach that has been really embraced before," Medeiros said. "I believe it should be. I believe that community can end homelessness."

Medeiros was one of Green’s first staff selections. Before the appointment, Medeiros was the executive director of HomeAid Hawaiʻi, a nonprofit that works with the construction industry, government and community organizations to design and build affordable housing — including Kauhale.

The communities are known for small, private living spaces with shared community amenities.

"You're creating space to build community in the built environment," she said. "For example, creating outdoor spaces for gathering and then creating those shared spaces — also indoors, lounges, kitchens, you also have that element of on-site support services," Medeiros said.

Kauhale development can be done through a public-private partnership. Medeiros said the state could provide support by funding construction, and the costs of operation.

She added that construction and planning can be handled by a nonprofit, with help from the construction industry. Companies may donate materials and time to build the tiny homes — which could be pre-fabricated or traditionally built. Then another organization will provide the additional services that residents may need.

In addition to providing accessible services and basic necessities, Kauhale housing are a “very low affordable option” for residents and local governments. Medeiros said that programs such as housing vouchers are expensive to maintain, because individuals and the state are still paying market rates.

"Housing somebody for $1,700-$1,800 a month, maybe more, versus giving them their own private space, but also a space where they get to gather, for less than $500 a month," she said.

Former Gov. David Ige issued emergency proclamations that were critical to developing Kauhale communities across the state — such as Kauhale Kamaʻokū and Hui Mahiʻai ʻĀina.

Green hopes to expand upon that success with a similar proclamation that’s set to expire later this month. The proclamations pave the way for affordable housing projects to be developed — by providing certain exemptions and bypassing other hurdles that would normally prevent their construction.

Green's proclamation has additional language to ensure cultural and certain natural locations are protected.

However, like many other projects, land is the biggest hurdle.

"Some people have just stepped forward and said we'd like to do one in our neighborhood and some folks are service providers," she said. "And some people are landowners, and they're stepping up. And at this point in time, whoever wants to come and talk to us, we're listening to."

Medeiros said the state and counties are working together to identify parcels to create more of these projects.

Other challenges include community opposition, and state and county requirements.

"You can use the model of Kauhale to help arrange a range of people that are experiencing homelessness, or even not," said Medeiros.

"We've only really explored this on a rental level, we could at some point entertain Kauhale being a 'for sale' option, depending on the price point for that. Maybe it's a tiny home and it's 20 grand."

Casey Harlow is an HPR reporter and occasionally fills in as local host of Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Contact him at charlow@hawaiipublicradio.org or on Twitter (@CaseyHarlow).
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