The site is hot, black and barren, the only vegetation a tangle of kiawe trees and mangroves that ring the small peninsula, which juts into Ke’ehi Lagoon. Interspersed among the trees — and perched within them — are ramshackle dwellings of every variety. Dozens of them. Cobbled together from plywood, plastic tarps, corrugated metal and bicycle parts. Some float on the water like miniature houseboats.
This is one of Honolulu’s many homeless encampments, and one of its most hidden, occupying a man-made spit in a man-made lagoon — one the result of the other — just east of the Honolulu airport. The approximately 11-acre property is marooned from the rest of the city by a foreboding highway interchange, which tentacles into the surrounding neighborhoods like a giant concrete squid. Until recently, the property was known for two things: its homeless camp and its paintball course, each an assortment of industrial detritus. But if Duane Kurisu has his way, this forgotten parcel will soon be home to Kahauiki Village, a bold new experiment in solving the island’s worsening homeless crisis.
Kurisu is one of Hawaii’s most prominent business owners and real estate investors. He is also part owner of the San Francisco Giants, the Major League Baseball team. In 2015, Kurisu read a pair of articles in Honolulu magazine (a publication he owns) that got him thinking about affordable housing. One was the story of a working-class family who, when their landlord sold their building, could not afford a new apartment and eventually wound up on the street. The other was a photo essay by Diana Kim, a photographer who documented her interactions with her mentally ill and homeless father.
With 487 homeless individuals per 100,000 residents, Hawaii has the largest homeless population per capita in the United States, according to HUD and census data. Oahu alone has close to 5,000 people struggling with homelessness, a number that has generally trended upward for the past eight years.
But what looks like a homeless crisis is actually an affordability crisis. For the past decade or more, the cost of housing has risen faster than the median wage. The fair market rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Honolulu in 2016 was $1,985. Although reasons for homelessness are complex, in Hawaii a lot of people are homeless “because the cost of living is just too high,” Kurisu says. “For the life of me, I don’t know how people afford paying rent.” Because of the cost of shipping, building costs in Hawaii are also higher than in many states, and securing financing for affordable housing developments can be about as easy as a homeless family securing a $700,000 mortgage.
Kahauiki Village will soon replace ramshackle dwellings at Ke'ehi.
That pair of magazine articles convinced Kurisu that he needed to try to help shrink the growing gap between wages and the cost of housing in Hawaii. That summer, while flying back from Hawaii Island with architect Lloyd Sueda, he noticed the Ke’ehi property from the window of the plane. “I said, ‘Let’s look at this parcel right here.’” (Kurisu also apparently saw an opportunity. A local radio station that he owns needed to move its broadcast antenna due to the planned construction of a new commuter rail line. According to Pacific Business News, Kurisu applied for a permit to build the antenna on a part of the Ke’ehi site under a separate application.)
Two years later, construction is underway on phase one of Kahauiki Village, a community of 30 single-family dwellings that will be assembled on the city-owned site and rented to formerly homeless families. The homes — prefabricated, steel-framed boxes manufactured by a Japanese company called System House and purchased by Kurisu — are repurposed emergency housing units, originally deployed after the 2011 tsunami in Japan. The one- and two-bedroom units will rent for $725 and $900 a month, respectively, including gas, electricity and water — a fraction of the market rate. Renters will have a kitchen and bath, and access to outdoor fire pits, vegetable gardens, a communal laundry facility, and a childcare center, as well as a variety of other on-site services.
Most importantly, they will have access to work. Vicky Cayetano, the president of United Laundry, a commercial laundry facility that serves some of Hawaii’s largest hotels and healthcare providers, has committed to hiring any and all Kahauiki residents who apply. The company’s facility is a five-minute walk from Kurisu’s development, across a footbridge that spans the Kalihi stream. The work is simple — feeding sheets and towels into industrial-size ironers — but full-time with benefits, a good entry point into the workforce, says Cayetano, who is also a former first lady of Hawaii. She says past efforts to hire homeless individuals have been stymied by two constraints: transportation and childcare. With Kahauiki, she says, both problems are solved.
Vicky Cayetano stands in the busy warehouse of United Laundry.
If built to capacity, Kahauiki could be home to more than 600 individuals. Unlike a shelter, it is a place to live long-term, with no limits on how long families can stay, says Connie Mitchell, the executive director of the Institute for Human Services, which runs a number of shelters around the state and will help manage Kahauiki once it opens. This project fills a gap in Hawaii’s housing stock and provides families “an opportunity to nest,” Mitchell says, who worked with Kurisu as he developed his plans. “We’re hoping they’ll stick around for a while.”
The vision for Kahauiki is plucked directly from Kurisu’s childhood. Growing up in the 1950s in a plantation town called Hakalau on Hawaii Island, his family didn’t have a lot, he says, but they did have security, thanks, in part, to the plantation model, which offered workers low-cost housing.
For many, especially many Native Hawaiians, the sugar industry represents a dark chapter in the islands’ history, inseparable from a legacy of colonization. “Our lands and waters have been taken for military bases, resorts, urbanization, and plantation agriculture,” Haunani Kay-Trask, a well-known Hawaiian scholar and activist, wrote in Cultural Survival Quarterly, the magazine of an indigenous rights advocacy group of the same name, in 2000.
But for immigrant families like Kurisu’s, the sugar plantations were a way to make a decent living, he says. His father worked as a machinist journeyman in the sugar mills. Living in the plantation camp, rent was just $24.50 a month, the water bill $1. The stability offered by such an environment created a lasting impression on Kurisu, who hopes to create a similar sense of community at Kahauiki. “Outside our villages, [people] may have looked at our community as being ghetto,” says Kurisu, the middle of five siblings. “But living in this community, we could live with dignity. And we had a culture where if we had caught two fish, we’d give one away. That’s the culture we want to build here.”
Perhaps controversially, Kahauiki’s aesthetic is also plantation-inspired. Kurisu worked with Sueda, the local architect, to design pitched roofs that mimic plantation-style architecture and can be fitted onto each of the System House units. In addition to vegetable gardens, an orchard of breadfruit and banana trees will help screen the village from the busy highway. “Instead of just looking at the tree, you can pick the fruit and eat,” Kurisu says, adding that he expects many residents will fish as well, just as his family did.
As homelessness has ballooned in cities across the country, many municipalities are experimenting with novel housing strategies. In May 2017, online retailer Amazon announced that it was donating six stories of its new Seattle headquarters to the homeless shelter Mary’s Place. But it is rare for a private individual like Kurisu to take such a strong leadership role in the development of supportive housing — long the domain of nonprofits and social service agencies. He has been at the center of Kahauiki from day one, providing resources through his (nonprofit) Aio Foundation, and also meeting regularly with social service agencies and business leaders, as well as Honolulu’s mayor, Kirk Caldwell.
To date, all of the design, engineering and construction services have been offered pro bono. Nurseries are holding plants to donate to the village, and System House is donating the building for the childcare center. One local businessman even committed to building an elegant lava stone wall — of the kind found throughout Honolulu — along the street-facing side of the development. The city leased the land to the Aio Foundation for $1 and agreed to provide utilities like water and sewer and add a bus stop at the entrance. The facility’s operating costs will be covered by rental income, Kurisu says, while management will be provided by a joint partnership between IHS and Newmark Grubb, a commercial real estate company.
A prototype home for Kahauiki Village
Kahauiki’s most unusual aspect, however, may be its tactical use of an emergency proclamation. In 2015, Hawaii Governor David Ige declared a state of emergency around homelessness in Hawaii, which increased funding for a variety of housing programs and also allowed the state to fast-track the construction of new shelters, says Scott Morishige, the governor’s coordinator on homelessness.
For Kahauiki, the emergency proclamation allowed the city and county of Honolulu to take advantage of special rules that allow government agencies to bypass much of the red tape that often slows affordable housing developments. (In Honolulu, it can take more than six months just to get a building permit.) Because the special rules only pertained to government entities, however, Kurisu needed to find an agency willing to partner. He found that partner in the mayor.
Even with Caldwell signed on, it took time to convince the governor that the project fit the requirements of the emergency proclamation, Kurisu says. But after several meetings, the state of Hawaii, which owned the Ke’ehi property, agreed to transfer the land to the city, which then leased it to Kahauiki for $1 a year. (The lease is for 10 years with a 10-year option since the governor’s proclamation only covers “temporary” structures, and 10 years is the upper limit of what is considered “temporary.”) The proclamation also allowed the governor to mobilize the National Guard, which is helping pour the foundations for the homes. Kurisu says this is the first time a state has joined with a branch of the military to build housing for the homeless.
Others are trying similar tactics. A month before Ige made his announcement, Mayor Eric Garcetti declared a state of emergency on homelessness in Los Angeles. A day later, Mayor Charlie Hayes did the same in Portland, Oregon. But Hawaii remains the only state to declare an emergency. If successful, Kurisu says, other states could replicate the model.
The strategy has its critics. On the television program “E Hana Kakou,” Colin Moore, an associate professor of political science and the director of the Public Policy Center at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, expressed concern over the use of emergency proclamations for a systemic issue like homelessness, arguing that the tactic gives Hawaii’s government too much leeway and does little to fix the larger problem, which he says is an ineffective state government.
But Morishige says the proclamation has had tangible results, pointing to a 9 percent reduction in Hawaii’s homeless population in 2017, the first time the number has dropped in at least eight years. Morishige adds that the regulatory leeway likely shaved off one to two years for development projects like Kahauiki, though he cautions states should carefully weigh the use of an emergency proclamation. “You are suspending rules that are in place for a good reason. So I think you need to evaluate: Has the situation really risen to a level where it’s a crisis? And are there any other alternatives to get a rapid response to address the issue?”
Kahauiki’s development team has complied with most of the laws anyway, Kurisu says, conducting environmental impact assessments and submitting its plans to the planning department for review. Early concerns that the site was in a flood zone prompted Kurisu to scale back the size of the development (reducing the total units from 200 to 160) and to avoid the low-lying areas, he says. (The development area is also being built up several feet.)
“We want to make sure that things are safe,” Kurisu says. “Even if the governor’s emergency proclamation allows us to do things without permits, we went through the process as if we did. We just don’t have to wait for the permits.”
Even as Kahauiki provides housing for one segment of the homeless population, it will simultaneously displace another. None of the approximately 100 people currently living on the banks of the Ke’ehi property are eligible for the new housing units because to qualify families (defined as at least one parent and one child) must go through IHS’s transitional housing program. Kurisu says he initially hoped to avoid displacing the existing population, but that he was assured by IHS that it was necessary for safety reasons, considering the encampment’s proximity to the planned childcare center.
Kimo Carvalho, the director of community relations at IHS, says Ke’ehi’s existing residents have been offered a number of services, including access to employment and substance abuse programs, and were notified that they would need to vacate the property more than a year in advance. Carvalho adds that IHS currently has space in its transitional shelters for interested individuals.
Of course, there is no shortage of families on Oahu who can benefit from projects like Kahauiki. Rachel Ui and her 2-year-old son, Ayven, have been staying at an IHS shelter ever since she had a medical emergency two months ago. Before, she had been working at 7-Eleven and staying at friends’ apartments. Even with a steady income, Ui says the cost of living was too high for her to get her own place. “You can have two jobs, live in a studio, [and you] still won’t make ends meet,” she says.
Ui, who is 26, grew up in Honolulu. She sees an acute need for affordable housing. At the affordable housing complex where her father lives in Kalihi, she says a one-bedroom apartment rents for more than $1,100, close to double what Kahauiki will be asking. Honolulu’s leaders need long-term solutions to the affordability crisis, she says. “[The city] is so focused on the homeless population, but they should’ve done something about it instead of just sweeping the streets,” she says. “Because it’ll only push people to another street.”
Rachel Ui holds her 2-year-old son, Ayven.
In many ways, Kahauiki is about removing barriers — putting housing next to jobs next to transit next to schools, not unlike what many cities are trying to do with their populations more generally. And yet the factors that have helped the project succeed are the same ones that may make it hard to replicate.
At capacity, Kahauiki would house roughly one-fifth of the island’s homeless families. If Hawaii could build just four more communities like it, Kurisu says, every homeless family would have a roof over its head. The problem is that finding a decently sized, publicly owned piece of land next to a decently sized, willing employer is a tall order anywhere, and a lottery ticket in urban Honolulu.
There is also the chance that professionals may not be willing to work repeatedly on a pro bono basis, though Michael Motoda, the local landscape architect who designed Kahauiki’s common areas and streetscape, says he would be thrilled to collaborate on future phases and projects. More importantly, the governor’s emergency proclamation officially ended in late 2016 (having been extended on six separate occasions). There may not be political will for another proclamation in the future, especially if Hawaii’s homeless population continues to shrink (though, despite a statewide reduction, the number of homeless on Oahu grew slightly in 2017.)
And then there is the Duane Kurisu effect. It is doubtful that a less-well-connected individual could so easily secure face time with the mayor, or convince so many private companies to donate their services. It is safe to say that Kahauiki would not be happening without Kurisu’s leadership. But it’s also possible that Kahauiki will inspire more — and more innovative — action around solving homelessness. That’s Connie Mitchell’s hope, at least. “Our whole community is being called on to think differently, and someone like Duane is just a catalyst for that,” she says. “For a lot of people, seeing something helps them realize, hey, this is possible.”
Kurisu is energized by the “outpouring of support” for Kahauiki and says many of Hawaii’s elected officials are studying the project as a possible prototype. “While we’re saying this is a solution for homelessness, this is really a solution for affordable housing, not only here but nationwide,” Kurisu says. “It’s not easy, but I’m thinking that if we all work together on this, we can resolve this problem.”
For Hawaii’s beleaguered social services providers, who for years have fought a losing battle, Kurisu’s blatant positivity may be as valuable as his deep pockets. But the real beneficiaries will be the children who grow up at Kahauiki, one of whom might just be the next Duane Kurisu.
Timothy A. Schuler writes about design, ecology, and the environment. He lives in Honolulu.
Krystle Marcellus is a photographer, videographer and photography teacher based in Hawaii.