In 2021, Maui County made big strides in jumpstarting efforts to create affordable housing opportunities for local families – and those efforts continue today.
The Maui County Comprehensive Affordable Housing Plan, presented by Hawaiian Community Assets (HCA), identifies specific projects and strategies needed to create 5,000 new affordable homes across Maui County within five years.
“The goal is really to have 5,000 homes in construction in the next five years and we’re at 675 [homes],” said Jeff Gilbreath, who served as the principal for the plan created by HCA.
Development of affordable housing in Maui County has been faced with many roadblocks that put the initial plan behind schedule. Gilbreath believes that at this rate the 5,000 units will be completed in 15 to 20 years.
The lack of Maui County staff has been one of the setbacks.
“One of the major reasons for delays, and [the reason] we don’t have as many homes in construction as planned, is because the county’s Department of Housing and Human Concerns has a severe lack of capacity,” said Gilbreath.
Hawaiʻi County and Maui County have roughly the same population size, but Hawaiʻi County has 51 staff members in their Office of Housing and Community Development while Maui County had just eight at the time of the plan’s release.
An increase in staff would allow the county to be proactive on housing development and lead to an increase in housing development, enabling more projects to be reviewed and processed at a time. At the current pace, the county will likely have 1,600 homes in construction within the five-year period.
“I can’t underscore enough how important the county’s capacity is in order to be proactive on development especially when the county has its own lands that can move an estimated 1,300 homes into production. The county needs the staff to help make this happen,” Gilbreath said.
In addition to understaffing in Maui County’s housing department, there have been other obstacles to building homes that local residents can afford. One example is a project in Waiehu that has faced opposition from some in the community regarding the project’s planned location.
Some believe the land selected for the planned Hale Mahaʻolu Ke Kahua Affordable Housing Community (Ke Kahua) cannot support an influx of new residents due to drainage and traffic concerns. The project is also challenged by a land dispute and concern for iwi kūpuna in the area.
Those opposing Ke Kahua say that the parcel is the property of the heirs of Pehuino through Land Commission Award 3386. However, representatives of nonprofit landowner, Maui Economic Opportunity (MEO), say that the parcel is a portion of Royal Patent Grant 3343 to Claus Spreckles. The issue was litigated extensively in state court and judgment was rendered last year in favor of MEO. Yet, the opposition persists.
House Maui Initiative Director Keoni Kuoha sees problems with the current housing system. “As a Hawaiian, I don’t want to have to choose between supporting traditional land claims or supporting a rental project that’s creating 120 homes for local residents earning 60% of the area median income and below. But that’s the way our system is set up right now.”
“We believe there’s a way to develop and build housing that is affordable for families while making sure that we don’t damage cultural and environmental resources or compromise public health and safety,” said Gilbreath referencing the housing plan’s proposed by-right development process that would streamline approvals for projects that meet standards for cultural and environmental preservation, public health and safety.
The Ke Kahua project is currently awaiting a decision from Department of Housing and Human Concerns Director Lori Tsuhako as to whether or not the project can move forward. Kuoha is hopeful Tsuhako approves the project while finding ways to address cultural concerns.
Kuoha believes that the county government needs to take the lead in engaging communities and determining where and what housing is needed.
“Our communities must have a say in their own future and the built environment is a big part of that future,” said Kuoha. “Our community members are going to bring up their concerns and we should have forums and more efficient ways for both community issues and community vision to be expressed.”
Despite the controversies and challenges the housing plan faces, there is no doubt that the need for affordable housing is as critical in Maui County as it is elsewhere in Hawaiʻi. But addressing the problem requires collaboration.
“Everyone says we need affordable housing, and it feels like we all agree on that level,” said Kuoha. “But when we actually get to the details of how to produce a better system for affordable housing, we need to be more collaborative and creative and get past our disagreements.”
While the county is behind on the plan to create 5,000 housing opportunities for local families in five years, the effort is creating hope for local families that they can continue to live here in the islands.
“Hawaiian Community Assets is preparing hundreds of families to become qualified for mortgage financing and affordable rentals so they can move into homes when they become available. This work is more about building hope than it is about building homes. HCA continues to hear how hard it is to survive, stay here and raise families,” said Gilbreath.
“But what we know in the community development nonprofit world is that we’re so close – we’re on the cusp of major progress on this issue. We need greater capacity at the county to deliver on housing and we need to work together to establish standard rules of the road on development that values cultural and environmental resources, public health and safety as well as getting our people in homes.”
Contact the Maui Financial Opportunity Center to learn how you can navigate the path to homeownership or rental housing. Call 808.727.8870 or visit www.HawaiianCommunity.net for more information.