One of the biggest problems in Hawaii is the shortage of affordable and available housing. Can the state’s youth be a force in solving this crisis? Sterling Higa thinks so.
Higa is executive director of Housing Hawaii’s Future, a new nonprofit that aims to educate and organize students and young professionals to help end the housing crunch.
Interviewed by Keli’i Akina on the latest episode of “Hawaii Together” on ThinkTech Hawaii, Higa said that Gen-Xers and millennials are “the most viscerally affected by the cost of housing and forced to leave the state to pursue a life elsewhere,” so the focus of Housing Hawaii’s Future has been to reach out to them.
“There are thousands of young people who would love to call Hawaii home, and would love for their elected representatives to take action to make that possible,” he said.
Higa said some of the main barriers to more housing in Hawaii are:
>> Scarce developable land “because we are islands.”
>> High material costs “because we have to import things.”
>> Excessive regulations, as shown by a recent UHERO report “that showed that the counties in our state are among the most regulated in the country in terms of putting up barriers to housing.”
>> NIMBY opposition groups, consisting of “not-in-my-backyard-people who come out to oppose development projects.”
Higa said Housing Hawaii’s Future wants to address al these issues, and one of the most important places where young people can engage with elected officials to help change things is Oahu’s neighborhood boards system.
“Our elected officials,” he said, “they use the neighborhood boards as a place to keep a pulse on what the community is concerned about.”
But because the neighborhood boards “tend to skew a little bit older in their membership, … very often, the concerns of people who are just forming their families, young workers or students are not represented at all. One of our hopes is that we can get young people engaged in all of the neighborhood boards, just so that their voices are represented in the conversation there, so that our elected officials are getting a more broad spectrum of the concerns in their community.”
Ultimately, he said, “ the hope is to build a constituency of young people who understand the workforce housing issue and have the skills and knowledge they need to advocate so that we can finally solve it.”
Watch the entire interview by clicking on the video below. A complete transcript is provided.
4-25-22 Sterling Higa with Keli‘i Akina on “Hawaii Together”
Keli’i Akina: Welcome to “Hawaii Together” on the ThinkTech Hawaii broadcast network. I’m Keli’i Akina, your host, and president of the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii.
My guest today is Sterling Higa. He’s the executive director of the new nonprofit, Housing Hawaii’s Future, which aims to educate and organize students and young professionals to help end one of the biggest problems that we face in Hawaii, which is a shortage of affordable and available housing for everyone.
In other words, Sterling believes that youth can be a formidable force in solving our housing shortage and crisis in Hawaii. Young people can make an effective difference as change agents and they can get involved in the civic process.
We’re going to talk about that today, and I want to welcome to our program Sterling Higa. Sterling, welcome to the program.
Sterling Higa: Awesome. Thank you for having me, Keli’i. I appreciate it.
Akina: Well, I appreciate all that you’re doing and your group as well. Tell us first a little bit about yourself and give our audience a little bit of background about you.
Higa: I grew up in downtown Honolulu. I’m a graduate of public schools. I attended Royal Elementary, Kawananakoa Intermediate and Roosevelt High School. I then went on to attend the UH system schools, starting at Honolulu Community College and then completing my bachelor’s degree in speech with a minor in English at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa.
I went away to get a master’s degree in education at Harvard, intending to work in arts nonprofits, and returned to Hawaii in 2015. I ended up teaching middle school performing arts for a couple of years. I taught at Hawaii Pacific University coaching debate and teaching public speaking for about five years.
I’ve also written as a columnist for Honolulu Civil Beat and as a contributing writer for Hawaii Business Magazine, prior to getting involved with Housing Hawaii’s Future.
I was approached by two of the founders, Keli’i — Zachary Yamada and Evan Gates — who had come up with the idea for this organization, and they wanted an executive director who had a background both in education and communication. As soon as they presented the plan for the organization, I knew that I had to be a part of the organization.
Akina: Well, you’ve got quite an impressive background already in your life and I’m impressed, to say the least. But what is it that drives you to work on the housing crisis here in Hawaii? There are many things you could do. I imagine that there’s a lot of passion in that for you.
Higa: Yes. Well, I’ve seen my classmates from high school and from university move away steadily, year by year, to pursue opportunity elsewhere. I’m 31 this year. As I think about starting my own family in the next few years, I worry that my children, my grandchildren, won’t be able to afford to stay in Hawaii. So it’s an issue that every year becomes more urgent for me and for many of the people in my generation, the millennials.
Akina: Well, we’ll talk a little bit more about that later on. But first, tell me a little bit about Housing Hawaii’s Future, the nonprofit that you lead. What’s the organization committed to and what does it do?
Higa: Awesome. Housing Hawaii’s Future is a movement that is led by young locals who will create opportunities for Hawaii’s Gen Z and millennials by ending the workforce housing shortage. Our goal is, ultimately, to raise awareness of the housing issue and to equip young leaders, our young professionals, our students, people who are working, with the skills and knowledge they need to advocate for workforce housing — because our belief is that these generations have the ability to advocate for themselves and that they are the ones that are being most viscerally affected by the cost of housing and forced to leave.
Akina: Well, you’re tackling a very important problem and sometimes people may not realize fully how significant the problem is. How bad is Hawaii’s housing situation right now, and who is hurt by it?
Higa: You see million-dollar median home prices on all of the islands. The working class, people who earn between 80% to 140% of the area median income, these are civil servants, these are people who work in education, people who work in healthcare, hospitality, skilled laborers even; these vital members of our community are really struggling.
Every year you see thousands of people leaving to California or Nevada or Colorado or Washington or Texas to pursue a life somewhere else, dividing families. The issue is bad.
We’ve often focused in the past just on the homeless issue, which is the most visible manifestation of our housing crisis. But I think that we’ve neglected the fact that the middle class here is really being squeezed.
Akina: I’ve appreciated the opportunity to sit around a table and talk with you about this, so I’d love it if you could share some of your insight as to why we have so many barriers to housing right now in Hawaii. What are these barriers?
Higa: Sure. When we do presentations — and we’ve been doing a tour of the neighborhood boards explaining the work of our organization — we typically divide the barriers into three categories.
The first are the underlying economics. Obviously, we have scarce developable land because we are islands, and material costs are high because we have to import things.
The second category of barriers are the regulatory barriers, and there is a recent report about the Wharton Index that was prepared by UHERO at the University of Hawaii that showed that the counties in our state are among the most regulated in the country in terms of putting up barriers to housing.
Many of these barriers were well-intentioned at first, but it is death by a thousand cuts, where if each barrier creates a slight friction for development and you keep adding barrier after barrier, you can end up in a situation where no new housing is being developed.
Then, the third category of barriers are what we call NIMBY opposition groups. These are not-in-my-backyard-people who come out to oppose development projects.
The most recent examples of this would be in Kailua. There was an affordable housing project proposed there that was ultimately shot down. And currently, this is playing out in Manoa Valley, where there is a senior housing project proposed for the Chinese cemetery in the back of the valley, and some members of that community who oppose the development of any new housing there.
Akina: That’s a very concise response that you’ve given and I think it’s fairly complete. You’ve told us that one of the problems is scarcity in and of itself; secondly, the regulatory conditions here in Hawaii through our government; and third, the opposition that is faced by advocates and various advocacy groups.
Now, with all those barriers, it’s a wonder that we get any housing built. But let’s just for a moment parse out a little bit of each of them. When you talk about scarcity, is that a real and actual scarcity of land available? Or is it more a contrived scarcity that we experience?
Higa: Sure. I think there are two elements to that. The first is we do have a very small percentage of our land in the state allocated, basically, to urban uses through the state land use.
Akina: De facto zone, so to speak.
Higa: Correct. About 6%, I think, of the land is available for urban uses. So we do limit the amount of land.
Now, I think there’s some merit to that. Obviously, in Hawaii, our natural resources are very important to the functioning of our society and to the culture here. We don’t obviously want to build everywhere. But we do artificially limit the amount of land that can be developed at the state level.
There’s a second element though, as well, which is the density of housing that is allowed on land. And that is usually something that is affected at the county level. If we only have 6% of our land zone for urban uses but we don’t allow a lot of density, we’re going to struggle to accommodate housing needs on that land.
Akina: What other kinds of regulatory barriers do we have to increasing our live housing?
Higa: This is something that would require a disposition. There are people who are much better informed on this subject than I am.
There are a variety of permits and processes that people have to go through at the county level in order to get their projects approved. Very often, for large projects that have an impact, they have to get some measure of community support. The affordable housing project, for example, that was slated to be developed in Kailua, ultimately stumbled because the County Council declined to approve that project.
So there are discretionary decisions that government bodies can make, like the county councils that can sometimes stymie development. It is possible sometimes, even when permits are approved by, say, Honolulu’s Department of Planning and Permitting, for those permits to be subsequently revoked because of community protests.
There are a variety of ways that projects can be locked down. There’s also the potential lawsuits related to, say, environmental assessments, as happened with Koa Ridge, so there’s a variety of ways that development can ultimately be hampered by regulatory barriers.
Akina: Sure. You also mentioned not-in-my-backyard NIMBYism, so to speak. But in addition to that, are there other forms of advocacy that make it difficult for development to go forward?
I’m asking you in particular because you are very well-versed in understanding your generation. It looks like there are many advocates that are out there amongst youth who, although they may not benefit from this in the long run in terms of housing, find themselves in opposition to development.
Higa: Yeah. I think there is, in large part, a general bias against development, in part because many local people feel that the kinds of developments that are taking place are not the kind that hard-working local families can afford, the so-called luxury developments.
To some degree, that is a legitimate criticism, right? Obviously, with million-dollar median home prices, if we are building to meet that demand, that’s really limiting these people within the 80% to 140% area median income, the middle class who really can’t be affording million-dollar homes.
I think that the key to overcoming that resistance is to make sure that we have policies put in place that help to incentivize the construction of workforce housing or the kind of housing that local families can afford. Ultimately, you’re not going to generate a broad consensus in favor of housing development, if that development is just going to be snatched up by foreign buyers or people who don’t live in those homes.
Akina: As you may know, Grassroot Institute has run a series called “Why we left Hawaii.” We’ve interviewed large numbers of individuals who would want to live in Hawaii, their home, but have left, largely because of the cost of living, and in particular, the cost of housing.
But there are other problems as well that young people who may not leave Hawaii face with regard to the high cost of housing and its shortage.
Sterling, what are some of those problems that young people in Hawaii are facing due to our housing situation?
Higa: There are many problems. Here are a few.
The first is, many people are stuck in multi-generational living situations. They’re not able to afford leaving their families. This ultimately impedes their own ability to become independent, but also to form their own families. It means that people delay marriage or having children.
On the business side, you have a lot of people where it is hard to form a small business, in part because you can’t attract and retain quality employees, because the cost of housing here means that you’d have to raise wages so high to compete with other places on the continental United States where the cost of housing is lower.
So It delays family formation, it impacts the small business climate, it makes it hard for people to start and expand businesses, and in a lot of ways, it’s affecting people.
But a bigger problem is one-third of our state’s population are so-called members of the ALICE population — that’s your asset-limited, income-constrained and employed families. These are working-class families who are one car accident or medical emergency away from falling into poverty.
So there’s a very real sense where these families that are spending perhaps 40% or even 50% of their income on housing are not able to save, they’re not able to escape from this ALICE category. Which means they’re always perched on the edge of disaster.
Akina: It’s a very precarious perch, unfortunately, and it means that a lot of people in fact are just one paycheck away from living in the streets.
Sterling, I love the name of your organization, Housing Hawaii’s Future, it’s extremely positive. Your approach, I believe, is to engage young people and students and professionals in particular. How do you go about doing this? How do you engage them and why is it important to reach them in particular?
Higa: Sure. For students, we’ve been reaching out to Hawaii clubs at colleges and universities across the country. We’re reaching out as well to the University of Hawaii system schools, all 10 campuses, and we’ve reached out to organizations like the Center For Tomorrow’s Leaders and the Omidyar Fellows, groups that are working with these young leaders.
It’s important for students to be involved in this issue, because students have been at the forefront of so many of these movements for social change. They’ve led on the issue of the environment, they’ve led on civil rights, and now it’s their turn to lead on housing as well.
For young professionals, people who are in the working class, we’ve been reaching out to them through the organizations they work for, through service clubs like the Rotary, the Junior Chambers of Commerce and other organizations where young professionals congregate to help them realize that this is an issue, obviously, that they feel more acutely.
Many of them are paying for their own housing, unlike many students who are still sheltered by their parents, but the young professionals understand this issue. To engage them, what we’ve tried to do is to create opportunities where they can participate in the civic process and be effective.
Akina: Now, what’s been the response from young people that you’ve reached out to them and attempted to engage them?
Higa: Initially, I think there’s a lot of cynicism and pessimism, to be honest. Most young people we’ve talked to — some teenagers even — feel like they don’t have a future here in our state.
As we sort of talk through some of the opportunities that are available to them, you start to see that glimmer of hope, optimism and even some excitement, where they realize that if they come together, that they can actually make a difference. That’s one of the most rewarding aspects of this work.
Akina: What are some of the ways young people can actually make a difference?
Higa: Sure. So there are a variety of places that young people can engage civically. One of the most important, and it’s often not discussed much at all, is the neighborhood board system. On the island of Oahu, there are 33 neighborhood boards that represent all of the communities. These neighborhood boards do play an advisory role for the County Council when it comes to these large developments.
They also are impactful in influencing the decision — both at the county level and the state level — [of those] who attend these meetings. The governor and the mayor also usually send a representative to these meetings.
So for our elected officials, they use the neighborhood boards as a place to keep a pulse on what the community is concerned about. The neighborhood boards tend to skew a little bit older in their membership and so, very often, the concerns of people who are just forming their families, young workers, or students are not represented at all.
One of our hopes is that we can get young people engaged in all of the neighborhood boards, just so that their voices are represented in the conversation there, so that our elected officials are getting a more broad spectrum of the concerns in their community.
Akina: Now, you’re a nonprofit, and so as you go out and attempt to encourage young people to get onto neighborhood boards, are you engaged with any particular political party or ideology, or are you fundamentally just looking for committed young people who want to work hard towards solutions?
Higa: We are not a politically affiliated organization. As a 501(c)(3), we are nonpartisan. To be honest, I think all that is necessary is to have young people involved in these discussions. Party affiliation doesn’t matter. The sad truth is that many people who are near retirement age or retired are disconnected first-hand from the kinds of struggles that young people are going through in terms of the cost of housing.
So yes, just getting young people to sit at these tables — so that they can represent both their own experiences but also talk about the experiences that their peers are facing — is one of the greatest ways that we can shift the narrative and help people to understand the challenges that are being faced.
Akina: Now, our City and County neighborhood boards are really the starting point for public service in terms of an elective office. What kind of influence does a neighborhood board have?
One might think that it’s the lowest level of governance, and it certainly is the one that is the most local. But what have you discovered about the potential power and influence of neighborhood boards on housing decisions?
Higa: I think the neighborhood board system is much more powerful than people assume. A lot of people think that it’s insignificant, but it is quite significant because these community members are often the most engaged. They’re the people who participate in service and volunteer opportunities. They’re the people who participate in sports teams or various clubs in the community. They’re the people who help out their schools.
Being able to help these most influential members of the community understand the struggle that young people are facing builds this grassroots momentum across our island here on Oahu, where all of the elected officials who participate in these meetings and the members of the community begin to see that this is a real issue that’s being faced by so many of the community. And that ultimately builds the political will to take action.
I think a lot of people have talked about solutions for years. The challenge has always been just to get people to actually be brave enough to take action. And I think that our elected officials should be brave, because the challenge is severe and there are thousands of young people who would love to call Hawaii home and would love for their elected representatives to take action to make that possible.
Akina: Well, encouraging young people to get involved in the neighborhood boards is a great way of preparing them for future roles of service, leading to Legislature and beyond. So that’s a very smart strategy.
What is your long-term vision for the organization, or what it will accomplish? What are maybe some of the plans you have coming up in the near future?
Higa: Sure. Ultimately, the hope is to build this constituency of young people who understand the workforce housing issue and have the skills and knowledge they need to advocate so that we can finally solve it. Some of the things we’re working on is a pledge. Our hope is to have a few thousand young people sign a pledge in favor of workforce housing, that’s coming up as the election season proceeds.
Toward the end of the election season, we’d like to roll that out and get out into the community, into the UH system schools, at the neighborhood board level, and get people engaged in saying, “Workforce housing is a priority, it’s something we need to address, and here we are, thousands of young people standing up to demand action.” Beyond that, we’re hoping to host candidate town halls for the candidates for governor.
Executive leadership on this issue is so important, and it’s important that our voters are able to understand in-depth what their candidates’ views on housing are. A lot of times, in a typical debate, there’s one question about housing. It’s, “Do you support affordable housing?” The answer is, “Yes,” and then it’s, “Next question.” But what about an hour where candidates are encouraged to engage in-depth on the issue and to roll out their specific plans?
Ultimately, that kind of information providing is the only way that the voters can make an informed decision about which candidates actually have their interests in mind. We’re hoping to host candidate town halls in the governor’s race to help the voting populace understand which candidates have the best housing policies for them.
Akina: Very good. Well, Sterling, it sounds very promising. I want to thank you so much for leading Housing Hawaii’s Future. Did I get it correct?
Higa: You got it.
Akina: Thank you so much for all that you’re contributing to the future leadership of our state.
My guest today has been Sterling Higa. and you’ve heard directly from him that there’s much hope in our young people as we look to them for solutions for tomorrow.
I’m Keli’i Akina, your host on “Hawaii Together” on the ThinkTech Hawaii broadcast network. Until next week, Aloha.