Proposals To Develop an Affordable Low- to Moderate-Income “Micro-Unit” Housing Project at 630 Cooke St

Posted on Nov 24, 2014 in Main


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A major challenge in Hawaii, and especially in urban Honolulu and the Kakaako Community Development District (“KCDD”), is providing ample affordable housing to meet current demand, projected growth patterns, and changing demographics.
The need for developing more affordable housing is evident.  The Hawaii State Legislature highlighted in recent drafted legislations the fact that as many as 50,000 new housing units may need to be built between 2012 and 2016 to meet demand generated by changing demographic and economic conditions, citing a 2011 Hawaii Housing Planning Study.  Those same findings report that during that five-year period about 2,600 affordable for-sale units and 2,100 rental units are estimated to be needed for groups earning between 80% and 140% of the Area Median Income (“AMI”).

The need for developing more affordable housing is far-reaching among different income groups.  Rising housing costs and increased demand for affordable housing affects moderate-income and low-income households alike.  Moderate-income households fall in a gap group that earn too much to qualify for assistance and too little to purchase market rate housing – while low-income families have few options and are at high risk of becoming homeless.

The need for developing affordable housing is also related to changing demographics.  Recent trends indicate a proliferation of one- and two-person households, which may be attributed to increased numbers of unmarried couples, single parents, divorced couples, and couples who delay or forgo having children.  Household growth for individuals living alone has drastically increased from 12% in 1960 to 23% in 2010, far outpacing traditional type households of couples with children which has decreased from 56% in 1960 to 20% in 2010 (Department of Business, Economic Development &Tourism, “Kakaako, Urban Core Living. 2014).  These statistics of changing household patterns underscore the need to create diverse housing choices including more studio and one-bedroom units.

Hawaii’s elderly population is experiencing significant growth too, with approximately 20% of Oahu’s population expected to be aged 65 years or older by 2030 (Hawaii Department of Health, State Plan on Aging. 2013).  Planning for an aging population will require housing strategies that allow seniors to remain in their own homes, stay active in their communities, and have easy access to necessary services.  Providing accessible housing options can promote independent living for older adults.

There are many challenges for producing affordable housing that meet the diverse needs and preferences of targeted populations, that can be feasibly financed, that adjusts to an increasing cost of living, and that is compatible with the character and vision for a specific neighborhood.  Yet, despite these competing challenges there are many successful case studies and proven solutions in other cities from which to draw comparisons, learn lessons, and further innovate.
For example, other high-cost cities have experimented and found positive results with developing new housing typologies in order to overcome many of these persistent challenges for providing affordable housing.  One recognized strategy has been to offer new housing options by developing smaller “micro units”.  Micro unit housing can offer thoughtfully-designed, high-quality living environments that generally are around 300 square feet and occupied by no more than two persons.  Micro units typically contain a separate closet, kitchen sink, cooking and refrigeration appliances, and separate bathroom containing a toilet and bathtub or shower.

It has been demonstrated elsewhere that micro unit housing projects provide desirable tradeoffs for housing, with perhaps few amenities but instead great accessibility and convenience to surrounding public facilities and active, mixed-use urban environments.  Micro unit housing can serve changing demographics as well as mixed-income groups, including for example seniors who seek to ‘age in place’ near transit-rich areas, millennials who prefer an urban-centric lifestyle, and individuals who are vulnerable to becoming homeless.

Kakaako is an appropriate area to prove these concepts and to prototype a new housing typology that offers housing options which will invite greater inclusion for many target groups.  Kakaako is planned for redevelopment that will incrementally realize goals for Smart Growth through urban infill of mixed-use neighborhoods.  The KCDD’s Mauka Area Plan and Rules have established a vision for directing public improvements and private developments to encourage the integration of residents of varying incomes, ages, and family groups.  The Mauka Plan and Rules allow for a mixture of densities and building types, and emphasizes multi-purpose structures and inclusion of important community facilities.  The Mauka Plan and Rules include innovative zoning and urban design guidelines that seek to realize a comprehensive and well-balanced community.

Additionally, there are new opportunities for providing affordable housing in close proximity to transit systems.  Transit-oriented development can reduce transportation expenses and commute times, while offering more housing choices close to employment centers and mixed-use “location efficient” areas near rail stations.  Demand for transit systems is equally influenced by both density and diversity of housing available nearby.  As housing diversity increases, per household transit trips also increase, while per household car trips decrease (Transit Cooperative Research Program Report 128. FTA.  Effects of TOD on Housing, Parking and Transit).  Consequently, developing diverse housing typologies with higher intensities near rail stations will increase transit capacity, and decrease the need for dedicated parking areas.

As a result of all these considerations, it is prudent to propose a project that deliberately aims to develop affordable housing that seeks to meet current demand and overcome persistent challenges by proving new housing models, such as the micro unit typology. The Hawaii Community Development Authority aims to initiate a showcase project which fulfills the vision of the Mauka Plan and can be similarly replicated throughout the KCDD and urban Honolulu.