If you’ve driven through Anahola lately, you may have noticed a small building under construction that until a couple of days ago looked like three shipping containers placed side by side.
They are NOT shipping containers. Rather, what you see is an experiment with a new type of manufactured housing. Its structural design has some similarities to shipping containers and the basic units, which are 8 by 8 by 20 feet, can be placed side by side, end to end or on top of one another.
But the building you see may never be occupied because it’s a demonstration project for a concept that could present a major solution to part of Kauai’s affordable housing crisis. What sets it apart is that this tiny house shows its value in a small-scale, limited and focused way, rather than trying to attack housing as a single gigantic issue requiring one complicated, expensive and time-consuming political strategy.
It’s the product of an initiative by the Homestead Housing Authority, an Anahola nonprofit developer headed by Robin Puanani Danner. Danner is a familiar and, to some, controversial figure within and outside the Native Hawaiian community. She’s an advocate of federal recognition for Native Hawaiians, as opposed to the entirely infeasible dream of restoration of sovereignty.
She’s a woman of a certain age who grew up working as a banker and experienced firsthand the obstacles placed in front of women, especially in the generation from which she emerged. She doesn’t suffer fools at all, much less gladly.
She has a reputation in some quarters as a bomb-thrower, but from what I’ve learned about her over the last two or three years, she wears such designations as a badge of honor because she believes in standing up to opposition, confronting or sidestepping established authority and actually getting things done. She has precious little — if any — patience for entrenched state bureaucracies like the state Department of Hawaiian Home Lands. To my way of thinking, these are Danner’s strengths, not her weaknesses.
But back to the little house in Anahola. DHHL is notoriously tardy in granting leases for Hawaiian homelands, and many of its Native Hawaiian applicants have been on the waiting list for more than one generation. It’s a horribly ineffectual bureaucracy. It also sets unrealistic requirements so that even if a Native Hawaiian family works its way up the waiting list to a spot where a land lease might be granted, that family would probably have to prove a level of creditworthiness beyond its financial ability.
That said, Danner also understands that DHHL scarcely recognizes aspects of Native Hawaiian culture that honor various generations and branches of families living in close proximity. That creates the obvious reality that, sooner or later, a family will crowd itself out of its existing housing.
Kauai County has fortunately moved in at least a preliminary way to make it easier for families to get approval for additional dwelling units — better known as ADUs — that permit construction of second homes on certain tracts of land. Danner figures there are between 400 and 500 locations on Kauai where small ADU homes could be built on already designated Hawaiian homelands. These would particularly benefit older relatives now living with younger offspring but wishing for a little more privacy, and young couples just starting out on the path to establishing their families.
Because these locations already have water and power, Danner’s tiny houses have the potential to meet the needs of a niche market within the larger, intractable affordable housing crisis. Danner likens this approach to recognizing that traditional big government approaches to large problems have an appallingly poor record of accomplishing very much.
She likes to call that big government-big solution approach the “Titanic principle,” meaning the solution comes along as one gigantic ship carrying everyone. But what Danner argues that an approach like the slow-moving Titanic is outmoded and runs the risk of sinking; housing solutions today, she maintains, need to be more like small speedboats.
Ironically, in this space in this newspaper a couple of days ago, former County Councilmember Gary Hooser argued yet again for a big government approach to the affordable housing crisis in which the county would pass a raft of new ordinances, empower a bunch of nonexistent entities and, in 20 or 30 years, if all goes well, maybe build something. Along the way, Hooser’s approach would, conveniently, evict the island’s four seed companies from the leased land they occupy. Odd, but that’s been Hooser’s primary objective for several years now.
Danner’s view on the housing crisis means that while it may be only one solution suitable for a small segment of the public that needs housing, it represents a real world option for that limited population.
The tiny houses Danner is trying to build are 480 square feet. They can be erected by a crew of about six workers in less than two weeks. They cost between $75,000 and $100,000, finished and presented to new occupants on a turn-key basis, on land for which the family in question already has a 99-year DHHL lease. They comply with existing zoning and other county requirements.
The tiny houses aren’t elegant, but they are highly serviceable and flexible. Because the shipping container-like engineering creates structural support around all four sides, interior layouts are infinitely variable. They can be totally open or divided traditionally. Or anything in between.
They are steel frame, with floor, wall and ceiling panels prefabricated from materials with high insulation values and that are largely impervious to rot, mold, termites and other pests. Windows can be placed wherever the occupant of the house wants.
More than that, this technology is ready now. The kits can be largely manufactured on Oahu. Individual doors, windows, siding, flooring and other features are deliberately designed to be sourced on island. The front door for the house on Kuhio Highway was being installed the day I visited. It was purchased from The Home Depot in Lihue.
Robin Danner is a focused, driven person unafraid to ruffle feathers. Many people dislike her for that. But if she can slice 400 or 500 housing units off the top of the affordable housing shortage by focusing on a Native Hawaiian niche market, I’m inclined to let her ruffle on to her heart’s content.
Go look for yourself. Just north of the solar generating station, near the Anahola Café, mauka side of the highway.
Allan Parachini is a former journalist and PR executive. He is a Kilauea resident.