Bridges, roads, schools, public parks, dams, wastewater, drinking water, energy, airports, coastlines: these and more are considered infrastructure. And infrastructure is foundational for any successful housing – whether affordable or not.

Even before the foundation is laid, infrastructure must be considered. How will people get to and from their homes? How will they assess water, electricity and the Internet? How will they get rid of waste? Will the home be safe from general weather conditions and natural disasters? Will public resources, like schools, parks and healthcare, be available?

How is the infrastructure in Hawai‘i?

Hawaii’s overall grade for infrastructure is a D+, according to the 2019 Hawaii Infrastructure Report Card from the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE).

What infrastructure elements in Hawai‘i score lowest?

A grade of D signifies poor, according to the report card. All other graded areas in Hawai‘i were rated in the C (mediocre) range: aviation, bridges, coastal areas, energy and solid waste.

“The majority of Hawaii’s infrastructure has been operating beyond its useful life, and some components of systems are over 100 years old,” expounds the ASCE Hawaii Section. “As population, economic growth, and development increase, the strain on Hawaii’s infrastructure will continue to escalate with many of its infrastructure systems struggling to stay in operable condition. Water main breaks, flood water damage, loss of property from coastal erosion, and beach and park closures from brown water advisories are all results of deteriorating infrastructure.”

What are some major Hawai‘i infrastructure projects?

Two major infrastructure projects – that are related to affordable housing - are the neighborhood of Kaka‘ako’s development and the Honolulu rail.

Kaka‘ako was once swampland that has been revitalized to house tens of thousands of individuals and families, as well as provide an area for commerce and essential ports.

According to the Hawaii Community Development Authority (HCDA), “the State has invested over $225 million on improvement district projects in Kakaʻako,” and “state-of-the art infrastructure and public facilities are being developed by the HCDA to spur new housing opportunities, community facilities, and increase business opportunities.”

In fact, in 1976, lawmakers created the HCDA to redevelop Kaka‘ako and meet “unmet community development needs” including “a lack of suitable affordable housing.”

However, has this funding for Kaka‘ako infrastructure created affordable housing? It certainly has for some individuals, with some lucky people gaining Reserved Housing for people making between 80 to 140% of the area median income (AMI).

Others might say that Kaka‘ako – with some of its luxury high rises topping well-over $1 million for condominiums – has not added enough affordable housing, considering the public investment in infrastructure.

“Infrastructure funding without housing support will not solve the housing crisis. When the public pays for housing infrastructure — roads, sewers, and utilities — but does not invest in housing itself, we mostly end up with private homes sold to the highest bidder, not affordable homes,” argues Kenna StormoGipson, the Director of Housing Policy for the Hawaii Budget and Policy Center along with help from Faith Action for Community Equity, Hawaii Alliance for Progressive Action, Hawaii Appleseed, Hawaii Alliance for Community Based Economic Development, Hawaii Community Assets, Kokua Kalihi Valley, Mai Movement Hawaii, Neighborhood Place of Puna, Partners in Care and St. Elizabeth’s Episcopal Church.

“Since it was not publicly funded, about 75% of the remaining housing built in Kaka‘ako was sold on the private market without any price or affordability restrictions,” StormoGipson continues. “Of the remaining 25% that did have some price restrictions and had to be sold to local residents, most of them maintained those requirements for only two to five years… The combination of not enough affordable homes to begin with and the short affordability periods, means that today more than 85% of the housing in Kaka‘ako has no restrictions on price or who can purchase it. Considering that the State invested $100 million of our money and spent decades planning and getting the neighborhood ready for residential development, the fact that five out of six homes are unaffordable at local wages is completely unacceptable.”

The Honolulu Rail Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) has proposed $4.93 billion over the next 30 years, in 2019 dollars, in infrastructure development to pave the way for development of three TOD priority areas: East Kapolei, Hālawa-Stadium and Iwilei-Kapālama. Infrastructure systems included “wastewater, water, storm water and drainage systems, roadways and highways including multimodal and transit facilities, energy and telecommunications including broadband, and public schools.”

“A major barrier to TOD implementation identified by the TOD Council and other stakeholders is the lack of adequate infrastructure in areas designated for TOD, as well as the cost and timely delivery of shared infrastructure and improvements that are necessary for agencies to proceed with individual TOD projects,” says the State Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) Planning and Implementation Project for the Island of O‘ahu report prepared for the State Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism.

And if infrastructure is funded and implemented along the Honolulu rail line (which is estimated to cost more than $11.4 billion in funding, as of early 2022), the City and County Department of Planning and Permitting estimated that more than 55,000 dwelling units could be added – with incentives to developers to build a certain percent of those units as affordable.

What is the future for Hawai'i infrastructure?

It is without question that adequate infrastructure is important for people to live safely and comfortably – and that Hawai‘i needs to continue to invest in infrastructure development.

With President Biden signing an infrastructure bill into law in November 2021, U.S. Senator Brian Schatz said at least $2.8 billion would go to Hawai‘i. “Billions of federal dollars are now on their way to Hawai‘i to help us improve our buses and public transit systems, fix up our roads and bridges, and create thousands of new jobs across the state,” said Senator Schatz, Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation and Housing. “This massive investment will make it safer and easier for Hawai‘i families to get around and benefit our local economy for many, many years to come.”

So with earmarked funding for roads, bridges, public transit, airports, broadband, drinking water, wastewater, electric vehicles, and a clean energy grid, Hawai‘i could see improvements in infrastructure in the near future – but will these projects be met with delays and cost overruns (like the Honolulu rail)? And will these infrastructure improvements add to the number of affordable housing units that will be developed?

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