In the Ward Village information center, the climate-controlled air is cold and crisp. A refined silence hangs overhead, the kind that coaxes voices into whispers and turns footsteps into quiet echoes. At the entrance, a touchscreen display greets me with information about the building, and around the corner, architectural models of Kaka‘ako light up as I use an iPad to navigate through the miniature master-planned community. In a circular nook adorned with a bright yellow mural depicting scenes of Hawaiian mythology, a promotional film loops, sending calm, collected voices drifting across the room, all of them praising the vision of Ward Village and its developer, The Howard Hughes Corporation.
This is the face of development in Kaka‘ako: perfectly planned and cutting edge. Whether it’s sleek and modern in The Howard Hughes Corporation’s Ward Village or edgy and artistic in Kamehameha Schools’ Our Kaka‘ako, the rebranding of this industrial district has dominated a collective discussion about the future of Honolulu. Over the last century, it has gone through many incarnations. As late as the 1930s, salt pans, loko i‘a (fishponds), and lo‘i (taro fields) pervaded the landscape. In the 1950s, it was home to a multiethnic community of Native Hawaiians and immigrants who were eventually replaced by light industry and gritty auto shops. Today, people are excited by Kaka‘ako’s thriving arts scene and its promises of picturesque urban villages. But as I tinker with iPad displays, a latent anxiety bubbles in my gut. Though Kaka‘ako offers a shining vision of urban Honolulu, in light of skyrocketing housing prices and stagnant wages, many cannot help but ask, “How have we arrived at this urban identity? Who is going to live in those shiny glass towers? Who is Kaka‘ako for?”
The question is unsettling, perhaps, because there is a difference between what we want from an urban Honolulu and what we can afford. For me, a 20-something writer and graduate student born and raised on O‘ahu, this dissonance is personal. I look at artist renderings of the future Ward Village, or cruise the bars and restaurants in Our Kaka‘ako, and I like what I see. A promised four-acre public park, a craft cocktail bar, a mural of legendary navigator Papa Mau—and soon, a Whole Foods. Like any good Honolulu millennial, all of these things make me feel at home in Kaka‘ako. As the promotional video plays on repeat in the information center, Howard Hughes’ senior vice president of development, Nick Vanderboom, tells me that Ward Village will be a true “gathering place.” But, as I step outside and the parking attendant hands me the keys to my old, dinged up Toyota, I realize that Kaka‘ako will not be home anytime in the foreseeable future.
Faced with a severe housing shortage and a growing population, O‘ahu will need an estimated 4,000 additional housing units each year between now and 2020 in order to meet demand, according to a 2014 report by University of Hawai‘i’s Economic Research Organization. Kaka‘ako, located within Honolulu’s urban core, has been identified as a prime spot for redevelopment under the oversight of the Hawaii Community Development Authority (HCDA). The area’s major landowners, Kamehameha Schools, Howard Hughes Corporation, and the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, have eagerly jumped on the chance to do so. As many as 30 new high-rise towers are slated to be built in Kaka‘ako over the next 15 to 20 years.
News of multi-million dollar luxury penthouses have grabbed headlines and sparked controversy, while the HCDA’s reserve housing program has come under harsh public scrutiny. Of the 7,189 units that have been built or approved in Kaka‘ako since 2005, less than 8 percent are affordable for low-income households (low income is defined as 80 percent of area media income, or $76,650 for a family of four in 2014). Yet, alarmingly, a 2014 housing study by the City and County of Honolulu found that 75 percent of the total projected housing demand on O‘ahu would come from this low-income demographic. When I request an interview with the staff at Ward Village to discuss their plans to address this discrepancy, I am referred to their PR representative, Bennet Group, which sends me a written correspondence that enthusiastically announces, “A mixed-income community truly makes people feel welcome and part of Ward Village.”
It’s easy to place all the blame on developers who build for a privileged few, but Lindsey Doi, community outreach officer at HCDA, points out that the issue is much bigger than that. “Developers need to make sure that their financing models are viable and profitable,” she says. “So when we’ve been able to provide low-income housing, it has required heavy state subsidies in addition to federal grants and tax credits.” The HCDA itself contributed $17 million to finance Halekauwila Place, a 19-story building where households earning 60 percent area media income (AMI) or less can rent a two-bedroom unit for $1,210 per month. With a barely detectable sigh, Doi adds, “That doesn’t even get to the fact that people’s wages don’t match the cost of living, which I think is really at the heart of the matter.”
Despite the tremendous burden that housing places on many household finances, attributing Hawai‘i’s high cost of living to the lack of affordable housing oversimplifies a much larger problem rooted in systemic economic injustice. Hawai‘i lacks a living wage, and our regressive tax system, which applies a uniform tax across the board and thus impacts lower-income individuals more deeply, ranks fourth worst in the nation for taxing the poor. (Hawai‘i, coincidentally, also ranks fourth in the nation for millionaire households.)
“It’s a huge issue,” Doi says, “but we’re trying to be part of the solution.” The HCDA, which oversees development in the district, requires that 20 percent of units in any new development be set aside as reserved housing, generally for five to 10 years. This means that rather than pricing these specific units at market rates, price points must be determined by affordability. Rental units must be affordable for households at 100 percent of AMI, while for-sale units must be affordable to households at 140 percent of AMI. But looking at the numbers has led many to question the effectiveness of these measures: For a family of four, 140 percent AMI amounts to $115,650. Meanwhile, many of our essential workers, from rookie police officers to experienced teachers, fall decidedly within the low-income category, which goes unaccounted for in HCDA requirements. While these reserve requirements match the guidelines established by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, in Hawai‘i, setting such a lenient threshold for affordable housing seems to neglect a substantial segment of our island family.
If, as they claim, the aim of HCDA and developers like Howard Hughes and Kamehameha Schools is to create a mixed-use, mixed-income gathering place, they need not look further than Nā Mea Hawai‘i, a bookstore and shop tucked away at the ‘ewa end of Ward Warehouse. As I talk with owner Maile Meyer, a group of tutu tidy up after a block-printing class and a university student wanders in to buy a book for school. Meyer is warm, generous with her hugs and encouragement, but also incredibly frank. She leans in and gestures towards an impeccably dressed woman who is browsing through art prints. “This is one of the few places where you can see people dressed like that spending their day with people dressed any kine,” she says, calling my attention to the subtle ways that class politics manifest in our everyday lives. “We’ve always wanted it to be that kind of place.”
Meyer has a more nuanced view of the hype surrounding Kaka‘ako. With Ward Warehouse slated to be torn down to make way for new developments, Meyer will soon have to transition her business, which carries books, arts, and products related to Native Hawaiian issues and culture, to a new location. But, as a leader in the Honolulu arts community, she has seen how developers like Howard Hughes and Kamehameha Schools have provided valuable support to the cultural sector. “In a lot of ways, they’ve been excellent partners,” she says. Indeed, Kamehameha Schools has helped artists turn Our Kaka‘ako into a hub of creativity, and HCDA has agreed to lease a plot of land for a dollar a year to support a live-and-work loft development that will provide 84 rentals to low-income artists making 60 percent AMI ($57,000 for a family of four, or $40,300 for a single person). Howard Hughes has committed an impressive $1 million to the community through the Ward Village Foundation. In fact, Meyer sits on the board of the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement, which received a $15,000 grant from the foundation to provide stipends to Native Hawaiian artists participating in the council’s 13th Annual Native Hawaiian Convention.
“The developers have worked hard to include artists and the Hawaiian community in their process, because they know that they need us to create interest and diversity,” she says. But when the rest of the community isn’t afforded the same inclusion, Meyer says, “somewhere it shifts from feeling like you’re getting a great deal to feeling like you’re being used.” And Meyer is on to something. As urban theorists like Sharon Zukin argue, the cultural sector has played an important role in the gentrification of cities around the world, creating the aesthetic and symbolic preconditions for commercial redevelopment. The distinct energy of a thriving cultural core is turned into an attractive selling point in an increasingly monotonous global market, and the natives, artists, and creatives themselves are recruited as the foot soldiers of gentrification.
The catch is that as developers brand their neighborhoods according to a city’s subcultures, the subversive power of these subcultures can strengthen. As Meyer puts it, the centrality of the creative cultural sector in Kaka‘ako gives artists a unique chance to steer development in a different direction. “When we sit at the table with the developers, we have a chance to disrupt their self-affirming conversation and pressure them to listen to our values.” She adds, “We have to remind people that we don’t forget about our houseless or our working poor. Our standard should be much higher than that.” Meyer takes a long look around her store, at the motley crew hanging out among a treasure trove of art prints, books, and local goods. She turns back to me and says, “Here in Hawai‘i, we have great familiarity with each other. We’re not strangers. But all of a sudden we’re treating each other like we are. So we have to ask ourselves what has happened to our community.”
What’s happened is that despite the support these developers have provided for our cultural sector, the veneer of “a community for everyone” reaches only so far—to the corner of Ohe and Ilalo streets, if we’re being literal. Here, the sidewalks are not pedestrian promenades connecting hip urbanites to their places of work and play. Instead, they are home to a community of roughly 400 houseless people. Dozens upon dozens of tents line each side of the road. While people are often reluctant to connect the growing Kaka‘ako skyline to the sprawling encampment on the other side of Ala Moana Boulevard, as the midday sun beats down onto hot asphalt, they twist together like a knot in your stomach.
On a weekday afternoon, the encampment is fairly quiet—like any neighborhood, many adults are at work, and most of the children are at school. I walk through the community with Kathryn Xian, director of the Pacific Alliance to Stop Slavery. Xian first became involved with the houseless through her work to protect young runaways who are often at risk of being targeted for human trafficking. Now, she is here in Kaka‘ako Makai nearly every day, working to provide services for the community. At first, the sight of the tents is intimidating, but the feeling doesn’t last long. Xian ducks her head into a tent. “Eh, you guys have health insurance?” she asks, directing a mother towards the Hawaii Health Connector tent, where they can enroll. With a cool flick of the wrist, a young woman throws out a shaka towards Xian. “Sup girl!” she calls out as she walks over to talk story. She flashes a disarming smile at me, and I listen as she gives Xian a rundown of what has been happening in the area, who needs help, who might be causing trouble. It’s clear that the community has its own way of policing, governing, and supporting each other.
As Xian tells me about the daily struggles faced by each member of this community, whether man, woman, keiki (child), or kūpuna (elder), the luxury towers lose the last of their seductive hold over me. It becomes clear that Honolulu’s urban reality is increasingly characterized by what urban theorist David Harvey calls “accumulation by dispossession.” A select few are amassing immense wealth by clearing out unwanted and marginalized populations to make room for new investments. I can hear the frustration in Xian’s voice when she tells me that the population in the Kaka‘ako encampment surged from around 150 people to nearly 400 as a direct result of the City and County of Honolulu’s sit-lie ban in Waikīkī. Xian estimates that 68 percent of this community is made up of families with children, and the majority are Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders, many working multiple jobs. Looking around at the children’s tricycles tucked away under tarps, it is hard to understand the logic of protecting our economy from our people, rather than protecting our people from our economy. “When advocates asked lawmakers to wage a war on poverty, we did not mean to wage a war on poor people,” Xian says.
If what is taking place in Kaka‘ako and across Honolulu is a war on the poor, then city raids are its battles. During these raids, state and city crews tear down tents, tossing tarps, mattresses, and personal possessions into dump trucks. Having homes torn down, even temporary ones, is a traumatic experience, and police are always present, ready to arrest anyone that tries to interfere or resist. To make matters worse, identification is often confiscated and thrown away during these sweeps, making it much harder for the houseless to access services or apply for jobs. “It only makes it more difficult for the houseless to leave poverty,” Xian says. While policies designed to sweep the houseless under the rug exacerbate the problem, Xian says that the political will to come up with real solutions is absent.
“We have somehow been convinced that the poor are responsible for our economic hardship because their presence deters economic activity, when the truth is that it is big businesses with no true sense of responsibility to Hawai‘i and its people that are responsible,” Xian says. “To me, as an advocate, it looks like the priority is to make a fast buck at the expense of the people of Hawai‘i, and in the meantime, pit the poor against the middle class.” Though the cruelty of dispossession is most visible here on the streets, it is also felt in more subtle forms by the middle class. While most of Hawai‘i’s hidden poor have support networks that serve as a safety net between their paychecks and the streets, many of them end up living with family or leaving the islands altogether. A 2011 Hawaii Housing Planning Study reported that 30 percent of people expecting to move away from the islands cited housing prices as their main reason for leaving; meanwhile, nearly 30 percent of all condominium units are owned by people from outside the state of Hawai‘i. The struggles of Hawai‘i’s houseless are inextricably bound to the struggles of the working class, and both are suffering greatly in O‘ahu’s urban core.
In the shadow of those rising skyscrapers, things can start looking pretty dark. But Meyer and Xian both point out that change is possible when people take matters into their own hands. Two years ago, Meyer welcomed a houseless artist into the shop, and he has since become a valuable part of the Nā Mea ‘ohana, selling his illustrations and even teaching art classes. Xian was recently able to get one houseless family off of the streets and into a little 300-square-foot apartment by using revenue from sales of her homemade organic Pono Soap to provide rent assistance, and she plans to expand on this experience to help more families get back on their feet. Throughout Honolulu, people are quietly reaching out to those in need. But transformative, systemic changes—like shifting our development paradigm, establishing a living wage, and reforming our regressive tax system—demand political action. Xian emphasizes over and over again, “Economic justice needs to be at the forefront of every platform of every lawmaker, and if it isn’t, we need to force the issue.”
There are signs that policymakers will listen when they have to. In response to widespread public criticism of the lack of affordable housing in Kaka‘ako, the HCDA is exploring reforms that would lower the reserve housing threshold from 140 percent AMI to 120 percent AMI and lengthen the terms of reserve housing so that units stay affordable for longer. Although the HCDA isn’t sure how much longer that might be, it’s a step in the right direction. “The loudest voices came through in the last legislative session and at our community hearings,” Doi says. “We heard a lot of concerns from the community.” It remains to be seen whether the HCDA will follow through with these policy changes, but it is clear that those loud voices will be important in shaping Honolulu’s future.
The archetypal city can be a place of extreme wealth and desperate poverty; of electric density and crushing isolation; of high culture and bold delinquency. While it is these stark, sometimes violent contrasts that makes the urban world so fascinating, perhaps it is also what has made Hawai‘i so reluctant to adopt an urban identity, opting for the safer “vacation destination” instead. There is violence there, squeezed between the sidewalk tent encampments and the real estate showrooms, though we keep trying to look away. We don’t want to have to account for it in our collective identity. But if we turn our backs on our most vulnerable, we are turning our backs on ourselves. Because the other fascinating thing about cities is that they take on lives of their own. Honolulu won’t wait for us to decide who belongs in our vision of an urban Hawai‘i. Rather than allowing a select few to sell us a prepackaged urban identity, we will need to discover our own.
Reserve housing: defined as 100 percent of AMI, or $82,600, for rentals, and 140 percent of AMI, or $115,650, for purchase, for families of four. Twenty percent of new developments in Kaka‘ako must be set aside for reserve housing.
Low-income housing: defined as 80 percent AMI, or $76,650 for a family of four. It’s estimated that 70 percent of housing demand between 2011 and 2016 will come from low-income households. There is no provision in HCDA requirements that addresses this.