Civil Beat: “Honolulu $93K Is Now Considered Low-Income For Honolulu Family Of 4”

Earning $93,000 per year sounds like a hefty salary, but not in Honolulu.

New federal guidelines now consider an income of up to $93,300 to be low-income in Honolulu for a family of four.

The city of Honolulu published the new income levels Monday showing the city’s median income grew to $96,000 — more than a 10 percent jump from $86,600 last year.

“Based on past experience — I’ve been doing this over 20 years — I don’t remember encountering such a large bump in the income limits,” said Kevin Carney, who works for the nonprofit housing developer EAH Housing. He said the changes likely mean that more people will be eligible for income-qualified units, but rents may rise.

The new guidelines say a salary of $65,350 or less in Honolulu is now low-income for a single person, and a salary as high as $123,200 is now low income for a family of eight. The Department of Housing and Urban Development calculates the data based on the census and inflation and considers salaries 80 percent or below the median to be low-income.

The numbers are important because they’re used to determine the rent for low-income housing units and the price of new for-sale units mandated by the city. The increase means that people can earn more than before and still be eligible for income-qualified units. It also could allow some developers to charge higher rents for low-income units.

Seniors protest rental increases at Na Lei Hulu Kupuna in Kakaako in February. The state reinstituted a rental subsidy in response to concerns.

Anita Hofschneider/Civil Beat

Craig Watase, an affordable housing developer at Mark Development in Kaimuki, said the changes are positive.

“This is good news that people’s incomes are going up as a whole,” Watase said. “If people are making more money then as a whole people can afford to pay more rent.”

Watase runs a senior housing complex in Kakaako where seniors recently protested a planned rent increase. Watase is subsidizing existing tenants and said the state recently agreed to subsidize rents as well to ensure existing residents can afford the increase for at least the next two years.

Watase said HUD’s new numbers mean that he could increase rents even further, but he doesn’t plan to do so. “Even though we are allowed to raise the rents higher my budget is such that I don’t think we are going to need to.”

Like Watase, Carney said the news is good. “From our perspective we are going to see more people qualifying to live in our properties. We do get a lot of people that apply that are over-income,” Carney said. “We’re catching another 10 percent in society who are now eligible to apply.”

He said rent increases in EAH Housing’s low-income rental properties happen every year anyway to account for higher operating costs.

“It’s necessary to have some type of a rent increase whether it’s a budget-based rent increase or whether it’s an increase because the income levels went up,” Carney says. “I don’t expect that we’ll see a large impact as far as displacing tenants. We’ve never seen that in the past.”

The changes could also affect for-sale units built under city guidelines. Developers who get rezoning approval in Honolulu must set aside a certain amount of units as affordable, and some can be sold to people earning as much as 40 percent above the median income.

The new HUD numbers mean that an individual earning as much as $114,360 could qualify to purchase an affordable housing unit, or a family of four earning as much as $163,280.

Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell and the City Council recently approved a new housing policy for some development around future rail stations. The idea is to make sure that new housing in gentrifying neighborhoods isn’t always too expensive for typical Honolulu residents.

The new policy allows developers to build for-sale units for residents earning as much as 20 percent over the median income. Now an individual earning as much as $98,020 or a family of four earning $139,960 per year could qualify for these units.

HUD issues new income guidelines annually and they vary widely by area. The income limits also affect federal programs like housing subsidies and public housing.

Civil Beat Op-Ed: “Context Needed To Understand Kakaako Houselessness”

Denby Fawcett’s severe call to action, Give Us Back Our Parks, generated several well-reasoned responses. We share with Fawcett a sense of urgency — the reality of pervasive homelessness needs effective action.

What we wish to add to previous critiques of Fawcett’s essay is context. Understanding the historic, bureaucratic, fiscal, political and other contexts of houselessness in Kakaako is critical to understanding the problem we must face creatively and collectively.

The specific historical context of the unsheltered in Kakaako has been stunningly ignored.

Over a century before the area was branded “Kakaako Makai,” the productive fisheries of Kukuluaeo and Kaakaukukui were filled in with ash from waste incinerators, and then became a large native Hawaiians settlement, derisively called “Squattersville.” The area served as a refuge for Hawaiians and locals priced out of other areas, until it was forcibly cleared by the city in the 1920s.

Before the Oct. 8 sweep of Kakaako Waterfront Park. The region has a long history of evictions.

Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

The 1920s eviction matches up with today’s sweeps, forming a pattern that belies Fawcett’s conclusion that “Now, it’s time for the state government to act.” Rather, now it is time to realize we are merely witnessing the latest part of a century of failed government action.

Time and again the government has tried to exploit the area for economic gain over the objections of those who assert residence there. The repetition would be comedic if it wasn’t interwoven with such deep cruelty.

Fawcett also avoids known disparities in public-land management with her suggestion we should rage against those “… who seem to believe they have a special right to commandeer public land.”

Across our coasts unregulated wedding photographers, yoga sessions and surf tours proliferate. Branches of the military lease thousands of acres for $1 per year. Water agreements for massive volumes from public land charge rates that have barely risen in decades.

In this light, the homeless’ “special right” is only wrong because it is unattended by political influence.

HCDA’s Misguided Outrage

Fawcett’s article described damage to the Waterfront Park that similarly obscured the government fiscal context.

Had that been provided, readers could more fully appreciate the irony involved when the Hawaii Community Development Authority points fingers. Since HCDA’s establishment to “address a lack of suitable affordable housing,” they have spent tens of millions of public dollars in Kakaako.

These efforts have resulted in some affordable units, but more so a proliferation of high-end luxury condos and a pervasive wafting smell of sewage. We are now asked by HCDA to be outraged at people who caused damage to electrical wiring and water lines as they sought to meet basic needs.

The specific historical context of the unsheltered in Kakaako has been stunningly ignored.

Finally, there is a political context that Fawcett invokes but does not examine. She pleads to give “us” “our” parks. But Kakaako’s houseless include local families and others with strong ties to Hawaii.

There is no bright line between recreational user and “hardcore homeless camper.” Some Panics surfers have gone through periods of homelessness due to the regular things that happen to regular people.

A parent dies, and the bank forecloses on a home that is home to several generations. One or more people in a household lose a job. Hospital bills come due after a wife’s death from cancer.

Moreover, referring to the housed as “law abiding citizens” fails to recall that for at least Hawaiians and Micronesians (who comprise some of the houseless), U.S. citizenship and state control were impositions by the United States for military and economic ends. The U.S. went to Micronesia and that brought them to Hawaii. Hawaii did not move to the U.S. — the U.S. came to Hawaii.

Kakaako skyline Honolulu city view. view looking up Diamond Head on King Street.

Besides many homeless people, Kakaako is also home to more and more luxury high rises.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Bringing in these contexts highlight some of the absurdities and ironies in coverage of the houseless and current government actions. We must also together examine the much larger national contexts that have lead to pervasive homelessness across the U.S. — including decades of dismantling of the social safety net, post-industrial economic dislocation and failed federal housing policies.

We need a conversation where we recognize that an economy which can readily produce $1 million condos but can not produce attainable housing is part of the problem. We need to look at all these factors, because they all lead to people living in parks, and we need to immediately see how many factors are outside county or state control.

What we can control is how we define the problem and where we spend limited local resources. The move to create a new unit in the Sheriff’s Division dedicated solely to enforcing a new criminal trespass law on state land seems, in these contexts, doomed to failure.

Defining a complex problem as only having one cause (the houseless) and therefore one solution (their forced removal) will not identify the collective actions needed to help all people live in basic safety and dignity.