Affordable Rentals on Maui? Where?

Sep 19, 2018

Edward Bailey's painting of Wailuku and 'Iao Valley was done no later than 1903.
Credit creative commons

Maui seems to be getting a handle on its homeless population, but finding affordable rentals is still the main problem, whether you’re on the street yet or not.  A recent study concluded Maui will need 14,000 more housing units by 2025, and while that target may be hard to hit, new ideas in neighborhood living are starting to take root on the Valley Isle.

An affordable rental project in Wailuku, owned by the Family Life Center. It was built with funding from the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation.
Credit Noe Tanigawa

Meeting of The Hawai’i Interagency Council on Homelessness happened Monday on O‘ahu, and David Nakama was there.  He’s Maui’s Homeless Coordinator.  Nakama says, the recent rains and flooding on Maui seem to be creating a decrease in homeless.  Several families and individuals who had previously resisted housing have decided to head indoors. 

In the 2018 Hawaii Statewide Point in Time Count, Maui logged 873 homeless individuals, down slightly from 896 last year. Just because of population, Nakama sees O‘ahu’s homeless problems as exponentially larger, but he’s hopeful.

Nakama:  We’re all in this together and I’m hoping that all their homeless provider agencies can jump onboard with the Housing First approach and do the 100% buy in that Maui has.  That, I think is the key.  If they can do that, then they’re on the road to solving this.

Nakama:  We talk about ending homelessness here all the time.  We have a Maui Homeless Alliance.  We always talk about ending it or getting it to where it’s very manageable, “functional zero,” it’s called.

Monique Yamashita, CEO of Ka Hale A Ke Ola, talked about functional zero, too, where there may be people falling out of housing, but the system is working such that they get back in quickly.

The bottle-neck, according to all the homeless service providers I spoke with, is affordable rentals. 

Officials estimate 5 thousand homes in the short term, vacation rental market.  Lawmakers are looking at what should be legal there, but at some point, homeowners themselves may have to look at their own business models.  It could be a situation like local produce, where you know from experience that the cheapest is not always the best, because it does not support local agriculture, create local jobs, sustain local food production, etc.  In this case, the most money making use of your extra space may not be the best for the community at large.

Partnerships are forming to advance the cause of re-sheltering homeless.  This year, the Realtors’ Association of Maui in partnership with the Homeless Alliance, sponsored the third Annual Landlord Summit.  The idea is to educate landlords and property managers about the support available when  renting to lower income people.  Ka Hale A Ke Ola, for example, has a Housing Retention Specialist who follows formerly homeless individuals and families for nine months.  If the landlord has any problems, if the tenants have any problems, there is someone to resolve difficulties.

Custom solutions to housing abound on Maui.
Credit Noe Tanigawa

In the end, everyone requires a custom solution.  It seems easier to deal with individual situations at a granular level on Maui, where the numbers are smaller, and people like Family Life Center Executive Director Maude Cumming are resourceful and persistent.   FLC Housing Specialists are always scanning for underutilized buildings around Maui.

But the studies have already been done.  Maui will need 14 thousand more housing units by 2025.

That doesn’t get freshly minted Housing Director Will Spence down, though, he wanted this job!  Spence was Maui Planning Director until just a month or so ago, but says this move to Housing is where he wants to be.  He has been through development and planning issues.

Spnce:  New projects come forward and people come out in force against them.  Then they say, How come we’re not building any affordable housing?  Well, because everybody fights every new project.  And if we’re going to provide this housing, people are going to have to start thinking differently.

Spence:  Not everyone is going to get a single family residence.  We are going to have to think a little bit more like O‘ahu and just go up.  Right now, eight story condos are uncommon here.  I think about Kaka‘ako, I’ve gone on a couple tours of that and think, that kind of thing would be hard to swallow here.

Spence says he’s not pro-development, he’s pro-housing, with a real passion for housing Maui people.

Maui had very stringent affordable housing requirements in place for a while—requirements that might have averted a housing squeeze, but developers couldn’t pencil out enough of a profit, so very little housing got built.   Regulations and stiff community opposition secured Maui’s reputation for being the hardest county to build in.

Only commercial development had an easier way through—look at all the malls!!

More affordable housing projects are now going forward, with changes to those “inclusionary” laws that required up to 50% affordable with every development.  What’s important, Spence says, is that there are things the county can do to expedite the process of planning and building affordable housing.

It’s curious that the way zoning is now, the cheapest, easiest and most lucrative thing to do with a large parcel is to cut it into big gentlemen farm estates.  That’s the reason so many are popping up.

Spence says the county can proactively rezone properties to encourage affordable growth in areas that are designated for development. There's the 2012 Maui Island Plan and there are community plans already in place, and this proactive rezoning could cut months or even years off the planning process.

Maui can also take advantage of new ideas in community planning.   Suburbs fed by highways and cars are not how planners think we should go forward.  Neighborhoods and New Urbanism is a global thing! 

Spence:  We have some very progressive developers here.  Waikapū town is a project that’s coming up that is very New Urbanist where you do have a central core, open spaces, like parks and whatnot next to all the businesses, and you start building affordable housing right next to it.  That’s going to be a good thing, and this developer has worked with even the environmental community so much, they’re even supporting it. 

Spence is referring to Mike Atherton, a developer whose travails and general good humor are well documented over a nearly ten year period.  He did not respond to a request for comment.

Spence also points to the Downtown Kihei project, which he says creates a hub for the town.  It is very pedestrian oriented with a large movie theater, a travelers’ hotel for visiting sports teams, lots of retail space, attractions, and restaurants.  On the affordable front, Catholic Charities is building over 150 kūpuna apartments near Ka‘ahumanu Mall, and across the road, a mixed use project is planned with government offices and residential units above. 

Maui is home to some people with ideas in this area; of course it takes more than that, it takes money, persistence, and years of your life.  But it may be worth it.  Maui may be worth it. 

Find out more about the Hōkū Nui, a regenerative farming community up in Pi’iholo, with Kealii Reichel providing a rich cultural component.   

Find out about Hukilike no Maui’s plan for portions of Alexander and Baldwin’s vast Maui acreage.   The group is a coalition of FACE Maui, Sierra Club Maui Group, the Kīhei Community Association and many others who share a commitment to sustainability, conservation and affordable housing.