Affordable housing can’t be defined simply by the cold efficiency of a government equation. It should mean that you can work just one full-time job, and afford to own a home. It should mean that you can buy groceries, take a vacation, and spend your weekends and evenings with your children without worrying about how you’re going to afford your rent or mortgage next month. It should mean that a Kauai kid can go off to college or trade-school and then afford to come back home when they’re done.
The following five steps can help us achieve true affordability for all Kauai residents while preserving our agricultural land and reducing the amount of time we spend in traffic.
1) We need to build more homes. Every study on affordability includes increasing supply as a prerequisite for affordability. This is the first decade since Statehood where home construction on Kauai has fallen far below our population growth — and it’s this lack of homes that is the driver of our exploding costs. While Habitat for Humanity and government subsidies are vital tools for building affordable housing, we will never have the resources to subsidize home construction for everyone who needs it. We need to harness the potential of the private market to work to our advantage by increasing the supply of homes according to the principles and policies of our General Plan. All new subdivisions should occur within or directly adjacent to existing towns to preserve open space and agricultural land, they should provide a mixture of commercial and residential space to ensure that jobs are integrated into the community and can be accessed without sitting in traffic, and the development should be compact and walkable.
2) We need to continually strive to make it easier for families to add on additional units for their parents, children, or long-term renters. Every home in a residential area should be able to add a detached ‘ohana unit or a second kitchen (or multiple of both if they are on sewer), kitchens should be allowed in guest houses on agricultural land, and we need to reduce the fees, regulations, and wait-times for these units to be approved. While the County Council has passed recent legislation allowing for both attached and detached ohana units in residential areas, neighborhood covenants (known as CC&Rs) currently prohibit the construction of both types of additional homes in the majority of neighborhoods. We all need to work with our homeowner’s associations to end these exclusionary practices.
3) We need to allow for more townhouses, condos and apartments in Lihue. The daily traffic into and out of Lihue is caused by the massive imbalance between jobs and housing in our main town. The only units that can be built within a truly affordable range for many young families are duplexes, triplexes, condos and apartments. These types of units allow young families to achieve the goal of home-ownership, build equity on their investment, and gain access to capital (such as home equity loans) to invest in small businesses or education. There are many policies to incentivize construction of higher density units, some of which the County Council is exploring right now.
4) We need to eliminate all illegal tourist accommodation units from the market. With twelve percent of our island’s housing stock going towards visitor accommodations, we need to do all we can to ensure that our housing units are going to residents and not visitors. While the continued crackdown on individual units is necessary, the successful model for eliminating all illegal units comes from the City of San Francisco— which recently required that AirBnB and other online rental agencies only advertise permitted units. Overnight, 6,000 illegal units had to come down from their website. In one similar legislative act, we could eliminate the primary marketing device for every illegal unit on Kauai, putting them back into the long-term rental market.
5) We need to continue raising property taxes on vacant second homes and investment properties. One in four houses on Kauai is sitting mostly vacant as a second home. Tax policy should be meant not just to maximize revenue from them, but to convert them into resident housing.
Even if you already own a home and don’t have children trying to find one— these types of policies should still be important to you. Investing within our town cores increases government efficiency and reduces long term expenditures (as infrastructure is much more efficient within towns). Ensuring that homes are built close to jobs reduces our reliance on cars to decrease our contribution to traffic and climate change. As families have more to spend on goods and services instead of rent or mortgage cost, economic growth increases. When commercial areas are walkable with housing nearby, locally owned business are more profitable. Allowing for multifamily households with services nearby allows the elderly to more easily age at home. And all of this helps increase the diversity, liveability, and vibrancy of our towns.
This isn’t an easy conversation and there is no cookie-cutter solution for every town. That’s why we all need to get engaged, let’s talk about what works for our individual communities, and let’s all put those solutions into action.
Luke Evslin is a candidate for Kauai County Council.