The High Cost of Affordable Housing

Why so little of it gets built in Hawaii

(page 2 of 3)

     Chuck Wathen, founder of the Hawaii Housing Alliance, thinks
     that private companies should not be able to profit from public
     subsidies that make affordable housing possible.
     Photo: Kevin Blitz

Regulatory dance

Government regulations also provide incentives for and hindrances to development. For rental properties, the most important are the federal, state and county regulations that affect the affordability period of a development. Since any affordable-housing project exists only because of public subsidies, it seems fair to require the developer to keep the project affordable for a reasonable period. Of course, “reasonable” means different things to different people, and today it ranges from 20 years to 60 or more.

The need for these rules became clear in 2006 when the owners of the state’s largest affordable-housing project announced plans to sell when it came out of its 20-year affordability period in 2011. The planned sale of Kukui Gardens by the Clarence T. C. Ching Foundation would have put nearly 2,500 tenants out of affordable housing. Only the investment of more than $50 million by the state – along with extensive tax breaks and bond support and a partnership with nonprofit developer EAH – preserved the project. But EAH vice president Carney acknowledges Kukui Gardens is just the tip of the iceberg. “The low-income rental industry loses two apartments for every one that’s being built.”

Some affordability advocates, like Chuck Wathen, argue that the affordability period for rental housing shouldn’t end. Maeva isn’t one of them. “I say things shouldn’t be affordable in perpetuity,” she says, “because, if there’s no risk the thing will become market (rentals), then there’s no incentive to go in and rehabilitate it. What you’re then creating are really ghettos and public housing. You need to identify and recognize the finite lifecycle of a piece of wood and the termites’ appetite for that. If there’s no risk it’s going to turn into condos, then it’s not going to get any political attention. It’s not going to get any attention from new developers. And, at some point in time, everything needs to get redeveloped.”

Although Wathen clearly admires Maeva, he’s not convinced by her arguments. “Let me explain it to you this way,” he says. “When you develop these projects and you sell the tax credits to the investor, after 10 years, when they’ve got their write-off, they don’t want to hear about this project anymore. They want it off their balance sheet. They want to get rid of it. That means the developer gets the residuals of whatever you make after 15 years.” He says the Ching Foundation got a $148 million windfall from Kukui Gardens. Wathen asks, “Should private developers profit from public investment?”

The affordability period of rental housing has its analogs on the for-sale side. There, in exchange for opportunity to purchase below market-rate housing, the buyer agrees to terms like buy-back provisions and shared appreciation equity. Buy-back provisions give HHFTC the right to buy the property back at a designated price if the owner chooses to sell within 10 years. This strategy prevents flipping. Similarly, the shared-appreciation equity program requires the owner to share any appreciation in equity with HHFTC when the property is sold. The percentage share is established in the sales contract, and unlike the buy-back clause, never lapses. Like the affordability period, these tools are designed to preserve affordable housing.

In many ways, though, the availability of for-sale affordable housing is much more affected by state and county regulations that require a developer include a certain percentage of affordable housing in market-rate development plans. In Honolulu, this so-called inclusionary housing requirement is usually 20 percent. For the most part, these rules apply to any developer seeking rezoning or a variance, and the logic is clear: In exchange for the public’s permission to build, you must contribute affordable housing. But it’s not clear at all that inclusionary housing has resulted in more affordables.

Even Carney notes: “The tradition in Hawaii has been for major developers – your Castle & Cookes, your Gentrys – to supply the for-sale product of workforce housing. But nothing is free. They pay for that by increasing the cost of market housing.” Which raises an ethical question: If we, as a state, decide that affordable housing serves a critical community need, shouldn’t the costs of that service be born by the community at large? Yet, as Carney notes, under the current system of inclusionary housing, those costs are placed only on the other residents of the new development. This not only puts an unfair burden on new buyers (or renters,) the added cost is also a disincentive to building affordable housing. If 20 percent of your units have to be subsidized (to the tune of $150,000 each), it’s hard to make enough profit on the remaining units to justify the investment.

Is there another way?

Other strategies have been tried. During the Fasi administration, the city was a successful developer of affordable housing. Projects like Chinatown Gateway Plaza, Hale Pauahi Towers and Marin Tower in Chinatown are testaments to the viability of mixed-income development. Similarly, the controversial project proposed for River Street is also on city land. It’s true that those earlier projects were built when the city was flush and there was a civic commitment to affordable housing. Nevertheless, city development might be updated to suit the needs of today. Certainly, spreading the cost of affordable housing across the tax base is more equitable than foisting it on a few new buyers. It’s also less likely to discourage market-rate development.

The state has also been an affordable housing developer. Twenty years ago, when it began development of the Villages of Kapolei, it built out the infrastructure and provided developers with ready-to-build sites. In exchange, the state required those developers to make 60 percent of their units affordables. This project created thousands of affordable units, although, in practice, the 60/40 split didn’t work out financially for the developers. Nevertheless, the process might help circumvent some of the lengthy and costly aspects of getting permits and entitlements.

It may be that the best hope for increasing affordable housing is simply to make it easier for developers, even market-rate developers, to build. If you ask affordable-housing developers – whether specialists, like EAH and the VitusGroup, or large-scale community developers like Castle & Cooke and Stanford Carr – what’s the biggest problem in creating affordable housing, almost unanimously they say it’s the shortage of entitled land. That’s why there simply aren’t enough homes being built. Bruce Barrett, executive vice president for Castle & Cooke, puts it this way, “From a developer’s perspective, the lack of supply is the major issue that limits affordability.” He points out that, during the last housing bubble, the median home price on Oahu essentially doubled. “Why did it double? Because we’re building less housing stock now than we did in the 1950s.”

Which is not to say that subsidies don’t have a role to play. Jesse Wu, vice president at Stanford Carr Development, which has major affordable-housing projects in both Kakaako and Ewa, says, “The production of affordable housing is really limited by the amount of subsidy available. For most of these units, even when the land is free, we’re putting together $80,000 to $100,000 per unit to bridge the differential between what it costs to build the unit and what we charge as affordable rent.”

Hawaii Business magazine invites you to comment on our articles and the issues they raise. Comments are moderated for offensive language, commercial messages and off-topic posts and may be deleted. Some comments may be chosen for inclusion in the magazine on the Feedback page.

Oct 13, 2010 07:34 pm
 Posted by  Quipper

Allowing 2nd units (by-right) on residential zoned land can help ease Housing Affordability without gov't subsidies.

The private sector continues to build illegal Rec Rooms in response to the high cost of living and need for housing.

Is it time we look at the excess capacity within our single-family neighborhoods to accommodate 2nd units? Increasing the supply of rentals is one way to ease the housing cost burden.

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