How To Increase Housing And Ease Homelessness In Hawaii

by Mark Coleman

As an expression of hope for the next generation of America’s leaders, Joe Kent gave a presentation last Friday to a group of students from Hope College in Michigan, in which he connected the dots between Hawaii’s barriers to housing and its high rate of homelessness.

Kent, executive director of the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii, made the point that many of Hawaii’s housing regulations are meant to favor the poor, but actually, they serve the very wealthy. And that has made homelessness in Hawaii worse.

During his one-hour talk, Kent outlined the four major types of homelessness: transitional, episodic, chronic and “hidden.”

“But there’s another group here, besides just homeless, that are in a tenuous situation,” he said. “Those are folks that do have a home [to live in as renters] but they are unable to meet their basic needs. They may be one paycheck or two paychecks away from becoming homeless, and those are folks we call the ALICE population here, that makes up about 33%. [ALICE stands for “asset-limited, income-constrained, employed.]

Since housing comprises the largest portion of their costs, sometimes at the expense of food, clothing and other necessities, understandably many of those residents have been moving away in recent years, in search of cheaper housing and greater job opportunities.

“So all of this is to say … we have a big housing problem,” Kent said, “and the question is: Why is the problem so bad?

“There are a lot of reasons,” he said, “but No. 1 is housing regulation. We have the highest housing barriers in the nation.”

Kent outlined six major layers of housing regulation: the state Land Use Commission, county plans, community plans, county zoning, special management area permitting and the historic districts.

After describing how each constrains housing, he discussed possible solutions, including reforming the LUC, “building out,” “building up” and liberalizing zoning laws in lands already designated urban.

One student in the audience noted that people who already own homes often oppose zoning reform because it might affect their property values.

“Politically, that’s the issue,” said Kent. “The people who need the housing don’t show up at the political process, and the people who don’t need the housing do show up at the political process. So you have the unspoken masses that, you know, don’t have a voice in this problem.”

“Well, how do you go to the zoning meetings when you have to work three jobs?” asked another student.

“And take care of all your kids?” said another.

“Right, said Kent. “Exactly. I know. So often I’ll go to the zoning meetings and testify on behalf of all those people that can’t make it. But, you know, I’m viewed skeptically as well. It’s like, ‘Oh, who are you?’ … “Are you really a developer?” It’s like, “No, no. I’m just a nerd, you know. So, just don’t be afraid.”

To view the entire presentation, visit

MARK COLEMAN is managing editor and communications director for the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii. Jonathan Helton’s article can be viewed by visiting the institute’s website at

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