Hawaii is an expensive place to buy a home. Despite the drop in Hawaii home prices, homeownership still remains an elusive dream for many of our Island families. While providing affordable housing is not solely government’s responsibility, there are steps that government can take to improve the availability of affordable housing units for our low- to moderate- income residents. The first step is to develop a viable broad-based strategy to improve housing affordability and availability in Honolulu.

The high cost of housing in Honolulu is the most pressing concern for our working families. Honolulu is the fourth most expensive homeowner market in the country (behind San Francisco, New York City, and San Jose) according to the Center for Housing Policy, a research affiliate of the National Housing Conference.

The annual income needed to qualify for a mortgage to buy a median priced home in Honolulu is $129,963 according to Paycheck-to-Paycheck, an online interactive database prepared by the Center.

Ironically, Honolulu’s high housing costs put homes out of reach for the very people responsible for creating those homes: carpenters, construction laborers, equipment operators and truck drivers. Teachers, nurses and police officers also make far less than the $129,963 a year that is needed to qualify for a mortgage for a median-priced home in Honolulu.

Renters are not spared high housing costs. Honolulu ranks second to San Francisco in a list of 210 “Most to Least Expensive” metropolitan rental markets in the country. Fair-market rent for a two-bedroom unit in Honolulu is $1,631 a month, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s 2009 report on Fair Market Rents.

The hourly wage needed to afford rent for this two-bedroom home is $31.37 an hour. If you earn less than this, rent will exceed 30 percent of your income, a national standard that measures affordability based on a concept developed by the National Low Income Housing Coalition. Single-parent households are especially hard hit with some head of households being forced to spend nearly 40 to 50 percent of their income on rent.

A lack of affordable housing creates a significant hardship for our low- to moderate-income families. It pushes people to live on our beaches, in our parks or in their cars. Families who try to make ends meet by sharing a home designed for a single family expose themselves to health problems associated with overcrowding, increasing the financial pressure on already limited resources.

The negative consequences of high housing costs are obvious: more money going toward mortgage or rent payments leaves less money for everything else, including food and medicine.

The lack of affordable housing also compels many of our young people to move to the Mainland where housing prices are generally lower. If we hope to keep our children in Hawai’i, we must provide them with affordable housing options.

The city has an opportunity to set policy that encourages the creation of new affordable housing and preserves the existing supply on O’ahu. To do this, we must work to address affordable housing on multiple levels. That is why I strongly believe a broad based affordable housing policy is vitally important for the future.

This policy should include key recommendations made by the Mayor’s 2006 Affordable Housing Advisory Committee. But we also need to consider other initiatives, such as establishing clear and enforceable affordable housing requirements in law; reducing or eliminating the acceptance of cash in-lieu fees as a means of satisfying affordable housing requirements if those fees are not going toward the creation of more affordable homes; establishing a city policy on the appropriation of funds from the Affordable Housing fund; providing tax relief for owners of affordable rental housing; requiring that affordable housing be central to any future Transit Oriented Development plans; and streamlining the permitting and zoning process to keep development costs down and encourage developers to build more affordable units.

Our challenge is to develop a plan that will balance economic prosperity with the needs of our workforce. It’s time we step up to the plate and accept that challenge.

‘Honolulu City Councilman Donovan M. Dela Cruz represents the North Shore and parts of Central O’ahu. He wrote this commentary for The Advertiser and it is reprinted with permission from the author.’

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