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Affordable for whom?

This essay is the fourth of a six-part series. The HousingNOW! Task Force will be reviewing the housing opinion survey distributed to Faith Action members in May 2021. This series is intended to equip members with more knowledge before the next legislative session.


Ninety percent of members agreed $1,500 per month is an affordable payment for monthly mortgage or rent for a two-bedroom housing unit. This essay is about how the cost of housing affected my life, and how it affects the lives of our low-income families in the community.


My Story

I had my first daughter when I was 20 years old. My husband and I were raising a family on one income while living in a low-income rental in Makakilo because it was all we could afford. We paid over half of our income on rent and utilities, couldn’t afford childcare, and often had to “move bills around” to make sure we had food on the table. Like thousands of others with no safety net, my family fell through the cracks. Childcare was too expensive, so I did what thousands of other parents do. I made the choice to be a stay-at-home parent.


I clearly remember one day when I sat on our kitchen floor crying because I did not have $5 to buy a gallon of milk for my baby. This is what it is like to be broke, not only financially but spiritually broken.


There wasn’t a word for what, or who, we were; I thought we were just broke. Now, 59% of Hawaii’s households just like mine are what is now called ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed). To learn more about ALICE, click here.


Household Budget Realities

My story is not unique -- it is an example of what the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) refers to as a cost burden, when a household spends more than 30 percent of its income to pay for housing and utilities. Cost burdened households are literally burdened by the cost of housing to the point they must make decisions to reduce spending on other necessities. Every dollar that is overspent on housing is one less dollar that can be used for food, healthcare, childcare, etc. The economic situation forces people into debt, which makes it even harder to achieve upward social and economic mobility.


Further exacerbating this problem are the lack of a living wage and high cost of transportation caused by our community’s development patterns causing a dependency on personal automobiles.


The Definition of “Affordable”

The State of Hawaiʻi uses the percent of area median income (AMI) metric to define what housing prices are affordable based on county, household size, and income. Under state rules, households earning up to 140 percent of the AMI may qualify for subsidized housing. That income limit equates to $123,480 for a single person and $176,260 for a family of four. These incomes set the maximum prices of subsidized “affordable” housing, so when households earn considerably less than these figures, then they become less able to afford the so-called “affordable housing” and are at risk of becoming cost burdened.


According to the National Low-Income Housing Coalition, a household needs an annual income of $80,613 to afford a two-bedroom fair market rental home in Hawaiʻi. Therefore, the state’s definition of “affordability” is set at price points above HUD’s fair market value. Ultimately, the price at which subsidized affordable housing may be sold or rented needs to be reevaluated by the state.


The HousingNOW! Task Force interprets the complex income tables, affordability charts, and housing needs by HUD income classification published by the state to mean $1,500 per month is what the definition of affordable should be. This equates to 30 percent of a $60,000 annual income with prices adjusted lower for households earning less. But our opinion is that housing subsidized by the state needs to benefit people who cannot afford housing at fair market rates.


Not much has changed over the past 11 years since my experience as a young mother trying to make it in Hawaii. Covid-19 further exacerbated the painful reality for many of us. Over the past year, the percentage of households at ALICE level or below has increased by 17 percentage points to 59 percent, from 42 percent pre-COVID-19. To be more specific, this means an additional 78,000 households are now living dangerously close to the poverty line, or have been pushed even further below it.


Over and over again, we heard “we’re all in this together,” but 268,390 of Hawaii’s ALICE households would say otherwise. When I think about what “affordable” means, I look to the people who have left the state in droves to places where homes cost $300-400,000. This is telling me: This is what Hawaii deems as affordable. It’s $300-400,000.


This essay was authored by Faith Action Executive Director, Ashleigh Loa. If you are interested in being more involved with the HousingNOW! Task Force, please e-mail housing@faithactionhawaii.org.

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