Kahauiki Village has been heralded as a disruptive model for solving homelessness. But is it putting a vulnerable population at risk?
I. A MODEL COMMUNITY
Every so often, a person will pull into Kahauiki Village off Nimitz Highway in Honolulu and ask if any of the cheery, solar-powered houses are for rent. Each time, employees have to explain that the residential development is only available to formerly homeless families. “That happens weekly,” said Kimo Carvalho, the director of community relations and development at the nonprofit Institute for Human Services, one of Hawai‘i’s largest homeless service providers and a partner at Kahauiki Village, as he toured me around the development.
Kahauiki Village, which everyone calls KV, is a novel approach to alleviating homelessness in Hawai‘i, which in 2018 had the largest homeless population per capita in the nation, tying with New York. Since it opened in January 2018, KV has been called a “dynamic community,” the “first of its kind in the country,” an “unprecedented affordable housing project for previously homeless families.” In June 2018, Duane Kurisu, a local real estate investor and KV’s originator, published an essay on Zócalo Public Square, a nonprofit media outlet, under the headline, “The New Kahauiki Village Is Rekindling the Communal Values of Old Plantation Towns.” “At Kahauiki,” he wrote, “we believe that a sense of community should be the starting point in addressing the day-to-day needs of those seeking comfort and shelter, and for providing long-term solutions for homelessness.”
Spearheaded by the Aio Foundation—the charitable arm of Kurisu’s family of companies, which includes PacificBasin Communications—and supported by the City and County of Honolulu and the State of Hawai‘i, the 11-acre, multiphase development along Honolulu’s industrial waterfront will eventually house 144 families who previously had nowhere to go but one of O‘ahu’s handful of family shelters. For IHS, it was a unique opportunity to collaborate with the private sector. “Housing developers rarely come to us and ask what a population needs,” Carvalho says.
The community is located on a peninsula built from soil, sand, and rock leftover from the construction of Interstate H-1 that, prior to KV, housed a paintball course. That the property became what it is today was something of a fluke. The way Kurisu tells it, he was flying to Honolulu from Hawai‘i Island when he and his friend, Lloyd Sueda, a local architect, spotted the peninsula from the air. The two already had been discussing plans for a housing project for formerly homeless families, so Kurisu decided to look into who owned the property. As it happened, the paintball course was closing, and the parcel was public land owned by the state. After months of discussion, the state gave Kurisu the green light and transferred the land to the city, which leased it to the Aio Foundation for $1 per year. From a developer’s perspective, a person couldn’t have asked for a better deal.
The project is being built in five phases, two of which are now open. It’s made up of what look like small, single-family houses but in fact are prefabricated, modular disaster-relief units that previously housed Japanese families left homeless by 2011’s catastrophic earthquake and tsunami. The units were purchased by the Aio Foundation, deconstructed, refurbished, and stacked into piles of constituent parts—steel trusses, insulated wall panels, plywood ceilings—and shipped to Hawai‘i to again house families who have nowhere else to go. Except this time, the catastrophe wasn’t grinding tectonic plates, but the grinding forces of a global economy: record-high rents, stagnant wages, a fraying social safety net.
Structurally, KV is a hybrid, occupying a rare zone between homeless shelter, public housing, and market-based “affordable” housing. Residents at KV can stay as long as they want, as long as they pay rent. Those rents are subsidized, but not in the same way as federal programs like Section 8 in which monthly rents are often income-based. At KV, rents are fixed at $725 for a one-bedroom unit, including utilities, and $900 for a two-bedroom unit, less than half of what a family would pay on the open market. (Although an income-based system seems more equitable—a person making minimum wage would pay less in rent than a person making $20 per hour—Carvalho says it can disincentivize residents from pursuing better-paying jobs.)
From the beginning, KV was designed to create a base level of stability as well as an incentive to work. November Morris, IHS’s employment program manager, says childcare and transportation are often listed by homeless families as two of the biggest barriers to steady employment. KV is located within walking distance of several major employers, including United Laundry, Love’s Bakery, and Honolulu International Airport, and along a major bus route that connects the village to downtown Honolulu and Waikīkī. The community offers onsite daycare for just $100 a month, with a free half-day program, a major financial relief in a state where childcare can cost anywhere from an average of $640 a month to more than $2,000.
KV gets several things right when it comes to livable environments. Inspired by Kurisu’s childhood, which was spent in a plantation town on Hawai‘i Island’s Hāmākua coast, the homes in KV’s first phase are painted brick red or teal green, their colorful metal roofs (a custom add-on designed by Kurisu’s team) pitched to rid the buildings of their cheap boxiness. Although one could accuse the project of romanticizing plantation culture—Hawai‘i’s sugar plantations were structured around a ghastly system of segregation and oppression—from a design perspective, these details elevate the secondhand housing units to photogenic cottages, complete with Victorian-style wall lights mounted above the front doors. The result is a feeling of quaintness.
The village’s first phase is also planned to encourage interactions among its neighbors. The 30 houses are tightly grouped, with landscaped paths winding between them rather than roads. There is a post office and a communal laundromat, and Palama Market recently opened a Palama Express not far from the daycare center. Residents have organized a parent hui to address community concerns, and on Saturdays, Ken Miyasato, the director of strategic planning and human resources at Aio Foundation, runs a pop-up dojo in the IHS office behind the Palama Express. KV even has its own micro-grid and is a zero-net-energy community, meaning it produces more energy than it consumes.
Most importantly, though, KV seems to be succeeding in giving formerly homeless families a genuine stepping stone to increased housing security and higher-wage jobs. IHS partners with various Hawai‘i companies to identify job openings before they are posted and prescreens candidates. “Companies are always approaching us, and one of the conversations I have with them is, ‘What do you pay?’” Morris said. “That’s important because our people are at risk. We need to place them in employment that pays a higher rate than minimum wage.” Within one year of KV’s operation, two families transitioned to more traditional housing.
Still, KV is far from edenic. Although technically it’s built on a peninsula, it’s actually more of an island. The property is cut off from the rest of the city by an imposing tangle of concrete onramps, offramps, viaducts, and surface roads, making it accessible by car only from the west— hardly a place a person would choose to live. I visited the village several times in September 2019, shortly after it welcomed another 30 families to the community.
On one visit, I met a woman named Althea, who was working as the cashier at the Palama Express. (She requested that her last name not be used.) Althea had grown up in the Marshall Islands but attended high school in ‘Aiea. She eventually worked at Pu‘uhale Elementary School as an aide to students for whom English was a second (or third) language. About four years ago, after her father died, Althea found herself physically and emotionally incapable of working. Unable to pay their rent in Kalihi, Althea, her husband, and their three kids, two of whom are grown, moved into the Holomua Na ‘Ohana family shelter in Waimānalo. Shortly after, they moved into KV.
I asked Althea how KV compared to other places she had lived. She said the rent was affordable, and that she appreciated KV’s sense of community—the parent hui, the monthly tenant meetings. The two-bedroom house that she and her family shared was smaller than the one they had lived in in Waimānalo. It was hotter, too. KV’s housing units have fans but not air-conditioning. But the main difference, Althea said, was the noise. The family’s house sits fewer than 100 feet from Nimitz Highway. The traffic barreling past is constant. Trucks and tour buses tumble from the H-1 onto Nimitz Highway in an unceasing riot of clanging, humming, grinding noise.
This was one of the first things I noticed too. On my first visit, the village reverberated with the persistent clamor of construction. KV’s third and fourth phases were under construction, and the property was also being used by the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transit to store construction materials. The result was a cacophony of voices, beeping trucks, and grumbling machinery. Woven through it was the deep yet shrill roar of commercial airliners taking off from the airport. In 2018, Time Magazine published a report on the dangers of noise pollution, citing a connection between noise pollution and cardiovascular disease. “High decibel levels from road traffic and airplanes, for example, has been linked to high blood pressure, coronary artery disease, stroke and heart failure—even after controlling for other factors like air pollution and socioeconomic status,” wrote Amanda MacMillan.
Carvalho is aware of the dangers that high decibel levels pose to human health. As an undergraduate student at Tulane University in New Orleans, he studied the relationship between heart disease and excess noise. “It’s a real thing,” he said, adding that noise was the number-one complaint at KV.
With the noise, I knew, came other dangers: the possibility of being struck by a vehicle, and poor air quality, which increasingly is linked to serious respiratory problems, particularly in children. The more time I spent at KV, the more concerned I became. Yes, the village provided immediate relief to O‘ahu’s network of overcrowded shelters as well as a potential a stepping stone out of homelessness. But it also exposed residents to environmental dangers that we are only now fully understanding.
There was a reason, besides being a design writer, that I was sensitive to the quality of the built environment at Kahauiki Village. I had written about the project before, when it was still under construction. In that article—published in Next City, a nonprofit publication focusing on urban issues—I had tried to paint a picture of the less-than-ideal environment KV occupied, cut off from even the industrial parts of Honolulu by overpasses and on-ramps. But I didn’t explicitly explore the potential dangers that the location posed to soon-to-be residents, and so a commenter wrote, “No mention of the pollution from the highway and the airport—pollution those banana trees and vegetable gardens will absorb, & that will cause that community’s children and elderly & adults too health problems … This seems to be the perfect example of environmental discrimination becoming entrenched.”
The comment was merited. Despite technological advancements that have produced cleaner automobile emissions, air quality concerns have ratcheted up in recent years as researchers have learned more about the dangers posed by fine and ultrafine particulate matter—the technical term for much of the air pollution associated with traffic. According to the American Lung Association, exposure to particulate matter can cause or exacerbate respiratory illnesses such as asthma and pneumonia and put individuals at greater risk for cardiovascular disease. Because these particles can enter our bloodstream, they can also lead to increased cell loss in the brain, resulting in neurodegeneration and enhancing the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Even autism has been linked to air quality. A 2014 study published by researchers at Harvard University’s School of Public Health found that the risk of a child developing autism doubles if the mother is exposed to fine particulate pollution late in her pregnancy.
Scientists used to think that particulate matter came strictly from a car’s exhaust pipe. But it turns out our vehicles are perpetually shedding bits and pieces of themselves. Disc brakes release a steady stream of metals such as iron, copper, and manganese into the atmosphere, which can mingle with sulfate to become soluble before entering our lungs. Rubber tires release microparticles of potentially harmful compounds, such as carbon black, a possible carcinogen. We’re only now realizing how dangerous these sources may be, and these aspects of car manufacturing are not regulated the way emissions are, which means even electric vehicles will not solve all our air-pollution problems.
The most dangerous places, when it comes to air pollution and traffic, are areas within 1,500 feet of busy roadways, which is the case for all of Kahauiki Village. It’s easy to write off air quality as a secondary concern, but Hawai‘i’s homeless population is disproportionately Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, and Native Hawaiians in turn are disproportionately afflicted with heart disease, diabetes, and obstructive lung conditions such as asthma, bronchitis, and emphysema. Quite frequently, it is a health issue that puts a family on the streets in the first place. One of the other residents I met at KV is Dolores (who also requested her last name not be used). Dolores is middle-aged, Chuukese, a mother of three. Two years ago, she was living in Kansas City, Kansas, when she became severely ill. She couldn’t work. She could barely move. Doctors had no idea what was ailing her; tests revealed high blood pressure but little else. “I was sick for eight months,” she told me. She moved to Hawai‘i for treatment on the recommendation of a cousin, who knew a woman who practiced nontraditional medicine. Her two youngest children, who are 13 and 12, came with her. But without a job or savings, she couldn’t afford her own apartment, so she went to IHS, which found her a house in KV.
After several months of treatment, Dolores recovered enough to be able to work again—she recently got a job in security at the airport—but her story is a common one. Unexpected health problems, and the resulting medical bills, are one of the main reasons Americans lose their jobs or file bankruptcy. Once a person becomes homeless, sufficient healthcare can be even more difficult to acquire.
Unfortunately, putting our most vulnerable populations in harm’s way is a common thread in American history. In 1970, Congress passed the Clean Air Act, which, like the Clean Water Act before it, made a healthful environment a civil right, regardless of ethnicity or income level. Beginning in the 1980s, however, a series of protests and reports made clear that many communities in the United States still lacked clean air or water and that, worse, the level of toxicity strongly correlated with race. Minority communities, often low-income, were far more likely to be exposed to various forms of environmental pollution, leading to the term “environmental racism” and birthing the environmental justice movement.
I find it striking that in the Hawaiian language, the word for air, “ea,” is also the word for sovereignty. Ea refers to breath and respiration, as in the phrase “ho‘opuka ea,” which means “exhaust fumes.” But it also connotes sovereignty, whether of a nation or of a person’s mind or body. Elizabeth Kapu‘uwailani Lindsey, a Hawaiian voyager and National Geographic Society fellow, has described ea as her favorite word in the Hawaiian language. “Ea means a personal sovereignty, a sovereignty where no one can hold you back or keep you down,” she once said.
This etymological link between sovereignty and the physical, earthly environment suggests an innate relationship between our wellbeing and the health of the planet—our air and water. An environment that endangers us is another form of subjugation. If we want to free families from the burdens created by poverty and homelessness, the environments we create are essential to that project.
The dangers posed by the knotted roadways near KV are not limited to noise or air pollution. I’ve taken the number 19 bus from Waikīkī to Kahauiki Village. Although the city added a bus stop in front of the community, it only serves eastbound traffic. Coming from the other direction, I had to get off at Pu‘u Hale Street and walk the remaining half-mile to KV. It’s a harrowing journey, even for an able-bodied 33-year-old. There’s no shade and no buffer between pedestrians and the speeding cars. Where Sand Island Access Road intersects Nimitz Highway, drivers are given a wide, curving right-turn lane so that they don’t have to stop. The only way to reach KV is to dash across, keeping your eyes on the road to ensure a semi-truck doesn’t barrel around the turn and crush you.
At one point during my trek, a dump truck going at least 45 miles per hour hit a steel plate in the road as it passed me, causing a bang so loud that I flinched. Several minutes later, my ears were still ringing. Loud noises trigger our bodies’ natural “fight or flight” response, flooding our bodies with stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. In these situations, our bodies are doing what they’re designed to do. But repeated or chronic exposure to stress-inducing environments, such as overly noisy ones, can lead to unhealthy cortisol levels, which can put people at risk for increased blood pressure, cholesterol, and heart disease.
The scariest moment came just after crossing Kalihi Stream. By this point, the sidewalk had disappeared, so I was forced to walk along Nimitz with not so much as a curb to protect me from the speeding traffic. Eventually, I found my way blocked by a huge, diamond-shaped traffic sign warning drivers of a steel plate ahead. With a ditch full of debris falling steeply away from the other side of the sign, I had no choice but to scurry around it when there was a slight break in traffic. By the time I reached KV, I was soaked in sweat—mostly from the sun and the way it bounced off the metal buildings that lined the road, but also from the stress of the noise and navigating so many hazards.
KV’s developers highlight the community’s proximity to jobs and schools. And it’s true that some of IHS’s partners, including Love’s Bakery and United Laundry, are within walking distance, as are public elementary, middle, and high schools. But the routes to many of these places are downright hostile, lacking shade or sidewalks or both, and, in the case of the walk to Farrington High School, passing directly by O‘ahu Community Correctional Center, a three-block-long stretch of chain-link fencing and razor wire. In general, pedestrian safety in the U.S. seems to be trending in a troubling direction: 2018 saw the highest number of pedestrian deaths since 1990, and Hawai‘i consistently ranks among the deadliest states for elderly persons.
One afternoon, I saw a couple and their young son walking along Nimitz Highway. I recognized the boy from KV’s after-school program, where kids had worked on homework or colored pictures of Naruto characters. Framed by a seemingly endless expanse of asphalt, this family seemed small, vulnerable, as if they didn’t belong in this alien environment of roaring, smog-spewing machines. In that moment, Nimitz seemed like a death trap, designed to maim.
Were there quieter, better protected locations to build Kahauiki Village? It’s hard to say. Communities often resist supportive housing projects in their neighborhoods. The reality is that our reliance on—or rather addiction to—cars affects all of us. Many O‘ahu residents are forced to make the same tradeoff: To escape the everyday assault of noise and smog is to be trapped in the everyday assault of bumper-to-bumper traffic—that is, if they can afford a car in the first place. If we’re serious about protecting people’s health, we have to think bigger than housing, bigger than jobs. Those are important. But so is clean air. So is ea.
III. AN ETHIC OF EA
One of the big storylines of Kahauiki Village is the leading role played by the private sector. “We’re just a bunch of guys who wanted to give back,” Lloyd Sueda, the architect who designed the plantation-style embellishments on KV’s houses, told Midweek in April 2019. “Obviously, this wasn’t something any of us had to do, but it was a passion of ours and it came from the heart.” By the time the first phase of KV opened, more than 200 local businesses, nonprofit organizations, and government agencies had donated time to help realize the project.
Kahauiki Village was built in record time. This was possible in part because of private-sector collaboration but mainly because of a proclamation made by Governor David Ige, which declared the state’s homelessness crisis a state of emergency. An emergency proclamation allows the government to bypass certain regulations in the actions it takes to respond to a crisis. In the case of KV, it meant Aio Foundation and its primary government partner, the City and County of Honolulu, could forego certain bureaucratic processes—such as zoning and permitting—that typically add months to construction schedules. It also allowed them to experiment with prefab structures that otherwise wouldn’t meet local building codes. KV, in other words, was disruptive.
To what extent was this revolutionary process responsible for the largely invisible dangers residents face on a daily basis? When I interviewed Duane Kurisu two years ago, he told me that Aio Foundation went through all the regular steps when it came to assessing the environmental impact of the project; they simply didn’t have to wait for building permits. I’m not sure which would be worse: if the assessment was never completed, or if it was and the potential noise and air quality impacts to residents somehow were deemed insignificant.
The problem with treating the private sector as a benevolent hero that swoops in to save the day is that such a story relies on an imbalance of power, on public institutions so emaciated that when private money is on the table they are all but forced to leap through whatever hoops are placed before them. But private money can be fickle. Cities around the world got a taste of this in April 2019 when the Rockefeller Foundation, a tax-exempt organization with assets exceeding $4 billion, announced the termination of its 100 Resilient Cities program, which since its launch in 2013 had invested $164 million in helping city governments, including Honolulu’s, undertake long-term climate resilience planning.
The foundation’s decision to pivot away from the program stemmed, in part, from a change in leadership. “As it existed, 100RC had grown too costly, and its model no longer aligned with Rockefeller’s goals,” Laura Bliss wrote in CityLab. Josh Stanbro, Honolulu’s chief resilience officer, said the dissolution of the program won’t impede his office’s work. From the outset, Stanbro said he and his staff worked to ensure that the office was supported by the city and had financial support from outside the Rockefeller Foundation. They did this, he said, precisely because private funding can be unpredictable. “That’s the nature of philanthropy,” he said.
On my last visit to Kahauiki Village, I noticed what seemed to be a sign of this sort of slow, financial evaporation. Tucked behind the first group of homes, KV’s second phase looked different. The homes were still painted cheery colors, but they lacked the pitched roofs that the Aio Foundation proudly points to in its marketing materials and that did the heavy lifting in making the first-phase homes feel less like factory-built boxes and more like plantation-style homes. Comparing the two, the second-phase houses felt cheaper, more temporary, more like the emergency housing units they were.
The Aio Foundation nixed the custom roofs because they accounted for nearly 40 percent of the cost of each unit. I wasn’t surprised. Maintaining support for nonprofit endeavors is notoriously hard. Capital projects such as new museum wings garner millions of dollars in one-time gifts, while the upkeep for those spaces must be funded from a fixed and often meager budget. “In philanthropy, it’s the die-off effect,” Carvalho said. In the lead up to opening Kahauiki Village, he said the project reached “peak momentum and contributions and assistance. That has definitely tapered. But I wouldn’t say it’s completely lost.”
Kahauiki Village is designed to be self-sustaining. Revenue from tenants’ rents support daily operations and long-term maintenance. But because maintenance has little to no value, its actual cost is often underestimated. It’s not hard to imagine returning to the community 15 years from now to find paint chipping, trees spindly and undernourished, public spaces spoiled by years of neglect. For projects like KV, under the current paradigm, entropy is the rule, not the exception.
We need a new paradigm, just as we need new stories. In her essay, “Maintenance and Care,” Shannon Mattern writes, “Values like innovation and newness hold mass appeal—or at least they did until disruption became a winning campaign platform and a normalized governance strategy. Now breakdown is our epistemic and experiential reality.”
Maintenance, meanwhile, is overlooked, deferred, or relegated to the domestic realm (traditionally the jurisdiction of housewives, whose everyday labor has no market value). What we need, Mattern says, is to better understand “how the world gets put back together” through the “everyday work of maintenance, caretaking, and repair.”
In any situation, it’s worth asking what exactly is being disrupted. Housing alone cannot address the larger forces that left families homeless in the first place, or the entrenched car culture that pollutes our islands and disproportionately harms low-income families. Will the business leaders who helped build KV also push Hawai‘i’s lawmakers to pass legislation raising the minimum wage or expand their companies’ family leave policies and benefits packages to decrease housing insecurity? In April 2019, while KV’s second phase was getting its final coat of paint, a bill that would have raised the minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2023 died on the House floor.
A lot of people say KV is a model for addressing homelessness in Hawai‘i, maybe even around the world. But Kahauiki Village is still an experiment. And like all experiments, we should track the results closely, not only the standard metrics—number of families housed or average household income—but also the health and wellbeing of those families, their long-term financial stability, the strength and longevity of social ties established while part of the community. We should not shy away from the project’s failings or its imperfections, but rather hold them up in the spirit of improving the lives of those it is meant to serve.
While writing this, I’ve been worried that in critiquing Kahauiki Village I am implicitly setting myself against the welfare of the families who call it home, or invalidating the tireless labor of the hundreds of workers and volunteers who sustain it: the case managers, daycare providers, landscapers, and construction crews; the security guards and the students who volunteer after school; the residents who serve on KV’s parent hui.
More than that, I worry that by reporting on the potential health impacts of living there, I am adding an undue burden on the shoulders of mothers, fathers, and children who already have experienced various traumas. But to look the other way feels unjust. We all deserve the best information we can get about our health. And we, the public, need to examine the results of social endeavors with humility and an eye toward our own biases and blind spots.
Kahauiki Village is an attempt to prioritize the dignity and autonomy of people who so often are deprived of both. But we rob people of their personal sovereignty when we infringe on their rights to clean air and safe streets and a quiet refuge to call their own. To continue to build cities with insufficient regard to human health and wellbeing is to rob ourselves of the ea we need to survive. We need alternatives that prioritize maintenance and care, that are imbued with an ethic of environmental sovereignty. A clean and safe community should be a right, not a privilege.