Does Hawai‘i need more affordable housing? With average single family home sale prices well over one million and limited inventory, the answer to this question would be a resounding ‘yes’ by almost anyone, including those thousands of people who are homeless.

However, if Hawai‘i residents were asked if the affordable housing should be built in their neighborhood, the answers might vary – with strong opposition by many. This is the essence of the “Not In My Back Yard” or NIMBY movement.

Whenever a new development, home, or even addition to a home is planned, there are often individuals nearby who oppose the construction. However, to reduce homelessness and promote affordability, it is without question that Hawai‘i needs at least tens of thousands of affordable homes – or more – to be developed that can house people who are making average Hawai‘i wages.

What is NIMBY?

NIMBY protesters vary in their size, goals, influence, and objectives. Some oppose housing development while others oppose prisons or health centers being built in a neighborhood. But the basic definition of ‘NIMBY’ is people who resist developmental changes in their neighborhood.

Arguments from those who oppose housing development in their communities typically include concerns about increased traffic, negative impacts on the environment and decreases in property values due to affordable housing being built.

“NIMBYism is a very significant problem. If everybody says okay, I recognize we need affordable housing, but just not here. Well, then where?” says Honolulu Department of Community Services Director Anton Krucky.

The History of NIMBY

According to New York University historian Kim Phillips-Fein, author of Fear City, the origin of NIMBY began in the 1970s and 1980s in New York City. At that time, NIMBYism was typically directed at environmental justice. It then shifted to object jails, shelters and drug clinics in working class neighborhoods, such as a jail in Manhattan known as The Tombs today.

“That was a time when many communities had only recently actually lost city facilities that they wanted to have, like firehouses [and] police stations, and there was a great anxiety about rising poverty in the city,” Pillips-Fein says on WNYC News.

Over time, NIMBY protests have evolved, impacting the gentrification of neighborhoods and home-ownership which has been the case in Hawai‘i.

NIMBY in Hawai‘i

With Hawai‘i home prices always rising, more and more ideas for affordable housing have aroused – that have led to more examples of NIMBY.

Take Māʻili on the Waiʻanae coast of Oʻahu. A $23 million affordable housing project began in October 2019, which included 51 rental units for around 200 people, a resource center and a park on two acres of land. The development is called Hale Makana O Maili.

A lawsuit ensued with neighbors who called themselves ‘Na Kiai O Maili’ or ‘protectors of Maili.’ The neighbors claimed they were not informed of the project and that the neighborhood infrastructure in the rural community was not sufficient. They asked the judge to stop the development despite the developer claiming approval from the City Council and two neighborhood boards before beginning construction.

However, the NIMBY protestors were not successful, and the affordable rental housing project is in its final stages, with all units occupied by individuals and families who make less than 60% of the area median income – a win for affordable housing in Hawai‘i.

The next Hawai‘i NIMBY case study comes from Kailua, an affluent neighborhood on the Windward side of O‘ahu. In the summer of 2020, housing developer Ahe Group wanted to build 73 units on the corner of Kawainui Street and Oneawa Street in Kailua.

This proposal to build affordable housing units near the heart of Kailua was met with thousands of Kailua residents petitioning against the building stating increased traffic, safety for children at the nearby school, limited parking and aesthetic concerns.

“There may be better places for an affordable housing complex of this nature, but for that particular location, it is just not the right place at all,” Toni Pedro, founder of Protect Kailua, states.

Despite the City and County of Honolulu Department of Planning and Permitting (DPP) granting exemptions for the project to move forward (exceeding current height limits, setbacks and parking codes), the developer removed the application to build the housing complex a day before a scheduled vote for its approval with the Honolulu City Council – a loss for affordable housing in Hawai‘i.

Another affluent neighborhood in Honolulu, Mānoa, is also slated to have an affordable housing complex constructed on the Chinese Cemetery property. The spring 2022 proposal was for Manoa Banyan Court: 288 units on 11 acres of vacant land with four buildings, three parking lots and a dog park. The housing would be for people who were 55 years and older, making between $708 and $1,412 per month. And the developer, Lin Yee Chung Association, said the project would help to pay for the upkeep of the Chinese Cemetery.

NIMBY protesters came out in force again this development project. More than 3,000 people signed a petition against the project, stating the development is “TOO BIG for [their] low-density residential neighborhood.” Other concerns included more traffic, storm water flooding, deforestation, loss of open green areas and degrading the overall quality of residents’ life during and after the construction.

The fate of Manoa Banyan Court is to be seen, as the developers expect to submit the affordable housing application to DPP by early 2023 with the hope of construction starting by 2024.

Should the conversation be shifted to YIMBY?

State and county lawmakers in Hawai‘i are always stating their ambitions for more affordable housing in Hawai‘i. Various bills to support affordable housing have been proposed in recent years, including increasing community notifications of development and reducing zoning and regulatory barriers for constructing more homes.

“We must take action now, and commit to a new era of building affordable homes for Hawaii’s working families,” incoming Governor Josh Green’s campaign website states. “We will partner with developers across the state to build tens of thousands of new units of affordable housing, which will in turn create new jobs, build our communities, and grow our economy.”

But with opposition by thousands of residents to building in their neighborhoods, the question remains about where these affordable housing units can be built. Who wants to say Yes In My Back Yard to affordable housing developments?

Tell me more

Get notified about affordable housing projects and seminars.