Whether we call it corporate responsibility or just being a good neighbor, those who derive profits from Hawaii’s natural and human resources have a moral duty to care for both. Some think this duty can be met simply by providing jobs, but a business model that delivers paychecks to some and sidewalks to others is neither responsible nor neighborly. Increased risk of homelessness is a form of collateral damage that cannot be ignored.
A few weeks ago, constituents in my district contacted me regarding notices of impending evictions they were receiving. I found these reports concerning, given the federal and local moratorium on evictions and the public health crisis Hilo currently faces due to a growing population of unsheltered individuals.
Those receiving the notices live in studios and one-bedroom apartments at Waiakea Villas. They include a significant number of asset-limited people at high risk of becoming homeless, including kupuna and veterans on fixed income as well as those with disabilities.
What appears to be driving the evictions is a plan to renovate the vacated units and increase the rental price beyond the reach of the current tenants, many of whom rely on subsidies through the federally funded Section 8 housing program. A search of online postings for long-term housing in Hilo shows very little available, let alone at a price this most vulnerable population can afford.
Given that access to shelter is a basic human right and integral to a healthy society, ensuring it is affordable becomes a priority for government at all levels. Scapegoating those sleeping on the street as if they are the cause of homelessness, when, in fact, they are evidence of a dysfunctional economic system, is a dangerous distraction.
To address the lack of affordable housing, we must find the courage to speak to its root cause — the forces that send property prices skyrocketing.
Speculators who purchase property with no intention of living here or generating housing for those who do have a huge impact on Hawaii’s real estate market. Their inclination to “buy low and sell high” drives up the median house price — currently $500,000 for Hawaii Island and nearly double that for Oahu — putting homeownership out of reach for most Hawaii residents.
This upward valuation leads to higher taxes, creating a greater burden on those with fixed incomes who now have less for essentials like food and medicine, and it also impacts rental rates. The higher the purchase price, the higher the mortgage, the greater the pressure to push the limits of what the residential rental market will bear or forego accommodating local families altogether to take advantage of lucrative short-term visitor opportunities instead.
Real estate speculation is just part of the problem. What is not widely understood is how lawmakers serve as primary drivers of these outcomes.
In an attempt to gain favor with the investor class, lawmakers pass laws that give corporations tax loopholes, 100-year leases on state lands, and rental credits for improvements that increase the investor’s profitability, while leaving Hawaii residents to pick up the tab.
To rectify the problem, Hawaii lawmakers must act boldly to put the welfare of the state’s residents before the needs of those who seek to profit from all Hawaii has to offer, while giving nothing in return.
I invite my colleagues to join me in taking the following bold actions to achieve that aim. Let’s impose a moratorium on the construction of luxury developments and tourist accommodations until a sufficient stock of affordable dwellings are built and made available to existing residents; let’s levy a tax on investors who keep habitable dwellings vacant for more than four months of the year to raise the revenue needed to build those affordable dwellings.
These two measures, taken together, will go a long way to preventing future displacement of our most vulnerable neighbors. In the meantime, I will continue to advocate for those being displaced from Waiakea Villas and hope that those who share the moral duty to protect them feel called to do so as well.
State Sen. Laura Acasio is a Democrat who represents Senate District 1 (Hilo).