Could Employer-Provided Rentals Help Solve Hawaii’s Housing Crisis?
It seemed like a small step towards solving a big problem: a bill to provide affordable rental housing for public school teachers on a vacant plot next to a school in Ewa. In the end, the bill crumbled at the finish line, dying in conference committee.
The sponsor of the measure, Representative Scot Matayoshi, said the rental housing development is still alive even without state assistance. But the failure of the legislature to pass even a modest measure to support workforce housing shows how difficult it can be to meet housing needs for key professions like teachers, nurses and hotel employees.
A more ambitious bill requiring the state Department of Education to develop housing for teachers came to nothing.
Meanwhile, unlike employers in places like the San Francisco Bay Area and Seattle, the private sector in Hawaii appears to be doing little to address the challenges facing workers, which are particularly acute in industries like the hospitality and healthcare.
It’s not like there’s no interest in housing policy. During the last session, the Legislature pledged to create more housing on the islands by allocating approximately $1 billion to a range of projects designed to help a range of residents, from the homeless to recipients of welfare to middle-income households earning nearly $100,000 a year. A $600 million bill for Native Hawaiian homes was also included.
In a recent series of opinion pieces published by the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, two gubernatorial candidates — Lt. Gov. Josh Green and businesswoman Vicky Cayetano — presented sweeping housing proposals. But implementing such programs will likely prove more difficult than simply writing them.
Meanwhile, there is the pressing question of whether employers can create housing for workers.
The concept of teacher housing is ‘still alive’
Ewa’s school housing bill is a good example. Policymakers have repeatedly said that Hawaii’s high housing costs make it difficult to recruit and retain teachers. But efforts to fix the problem have been limited.
Private institutions like the Punahou School provide inexpensive housing for faculty, as does the University of Hawaii. The Department of Education, which oversees the public school system, is also said to have accommodation for teachers, but spokeswoman Nanea Kalani could not say how many accommodations there are or where they are.
The measure sponsored by Matayoshi, a former public school teacher himself, would have used a method to develop more. The bill authorized the state to purchase a 12-acre parcel behind Holomua Elementary to develop affordable housing. Priority would have been given to Department of Education classroom teachers who had just entered the profession.
The property was unused open space owned by developer Gentry Homes, the builder of the neighboring Ewa Gentry housing estate. The idea was for the builder to work with a nonprofit housing organization, Matayoshi said. The cost to the state would have been minimal, he said. And the final version of the bill received support from major players such as the Department of Education and the Hawaii State Teachers Association.
However, the measure is dead.
“He didn’t die for lack of merit,” Matayoshi said. “It wasn’t quite ripe yet.”
The goal, Matayoshi said, was to kick off the project by sparking discussion in a public forum.
“It’s still alive as a concept,” he said. “The landowner and the non-profit developer are still talking.”
A next step will be to work with Hawaii Senator Kurt Fevella to get community feedback.
“If we can find more situations where it would work — and they do — then we see this as a pilot project moving forward,” Matayoshi said.
Other states do
Still, Hawaii’s efforts to develop housing for public school teachers seem slow compared to efforts in places like Silicon Valley. For example, the Santa Clara School District’s Casa Del Maestro teacher apartment complex, which sits next to an elementary school and is owned by the school district, has become a model for other districts in California, reports the educational nonprofit EdSource.
And researchers from UCLA and the University of California, Berkeley have stepped in with a study identifying opportunities across the state to develop teacher housing on school-owned property, an idea being championed in Hawaii. by State Senator Stanley Chang in a bill.
The UCLA-Berkeley study included language reminiscent of Hawaiian issues.
“Many of the 300,000 public school teachers cannot afford to live in the communities where they work, forcing them to travel long distances or excluding them from the education system altogether,” the California study said. “Attracting new teachers has also become more difficult.”
So why can’t Hawaii do anything?
The issue is more complex than it appears, said Chang, chairman of the Senate Housing Committee. Chang said a problem with housing in public education, for example, is that it takes more than teachers to keep schools running. The question therefore arises whether accommodation should be made available to employees in addition to teachers – all within the framework of collective agreements with different unions representing different professions.
Still, Chang said he saw potential.
“I think the momentum is there,” he said. “I think people recognize that the housing shortage is disproportionately affecting teachers, so I think the momentum is there.”
Places like the Bay Area and Seattle are also far ahead of Hawaii when it comes to private sector involvement in housing issues. Google is investing $1 billion in housing construction, as is Apple, according to media and company press releases.
Google CEO Sundar Pichai wrote in a blog post, “We know our responsibility to help begins at home. For us, that means being a good neighbor where it all began over 20 years ago: the San Francisco Bay Area.
A comprehensive article in a National Association of Realtors trade magazine showed how companies like Amazon and Microsoft are making similar investments in Seattle, while Universal is working to build housing for theme park workers in Florida. And even some small properties in seaside resorts are building housing for employees, reports trade magazine Lodging.
For Hawaii’s hospitality industry, the solution is not to build housing for workers, but rather to support policies that allow developers to build more affordable housing, according to Kekoa McClellan, spokesperson for the American Hotel and Lodging Association.
“Solutions to Hawaii’s affordable housing crisis must focus on both increasing the supply of more affordable housing and ensuring that this housing ends up in the hands of the kamaaina for whom it is intended,” said McClellan said in a statement.
This included supportive policies aimed at eliminating illegal short-term rentals and encouraging the development of affordable units in Honolulu’s urban core by allowing for greater density.
“What Hawaii needs are common-sense affordable housing policies that encourage the development of new units,” he said. “Solving our supply problem will require our state and county governments to reduce barriers to licensing new affordable housing.”
In some ways, Hawaii seems to be falling behind when it comes to employers providing affordable housing for workers. For example, Daniel Ross, president of the Hawaii Nurses Association, notes that Queen’s Medical Center once offered affordable dormitory-style apartments for nurses.
Art Gladstone, executive vice president and chief strategy officer of Hawaii Pacific Health, said the hospital giant has no plans to offer affordable rental housing to employees at its four main facilities: Kapiolani Hospitals, Pali Momi, Straub and Wilcox.
Still, Gladstone acknowledged that housing availability and affordability is a challenge, especially when it comes to recruiting professionals like nurses.
“It’s a big factor and has been a factor for a long time,” he said.
“Struggling to Get Out” is part of our series on “Hawaii’s Changing Economy” which is supported by a grant from the Hawaii Community Foundation through its CHANGE Framework project.