Lava only worsens Hawaii’s housing crisis

There is a perpetual housing shortage in Hawaii. It is in some ways similar to the housing shortage in some prestige cities like San Francisco. The shortage here has been aggravated by Kilauea’s behavior. Hundreds of buildings burned down and many hundreds of people forced out of their homes by lava, gas or just impassable roads.

These people are not part of the traditional homeless, until last month they had a home, a car or two, maybe a boat and all the normal possessions, and now they have nothing. There are other factors adding to the shortage. Convenient online vacation renting has taken many houses that could have housed a family off the market. Why rent a house to a local family for $1,000 a month when it can be rented to vacationers for $1,000 a week, or $300 a night, maybe tax free. It may take federal action to get agencies like VRBO and Airbnb to report taxable events that they facilitate, but Hawaii needs some tough, serious regulation.


It seems like the Legislature would rather have people living in their car or under a tree than in a house that is not built like the Marriott. Do we really need R19 insulation and dual pane e-glass in a house where the windows will never be closed? Is it because somebody might install an air conditioner in the future? Does that make sense? Many old houses here have stood for over 50 years on concrete blocks placed on the natural rock, elevated by 4×4 posts. New houses are required to have massive concrete foundations excavated expensively two feet deep into the immovable rock. (To prevent frost heaving?) Posts are now routinely 6×6 at twice the cost. A new lanai cover is built like a railroad trestle. The material suppliers must be delighted, their lobbying has paid off. Adding $10,000 to the cost of a new house adds $500 to their profits.

Hawaii County converted used shipping containers to one bedroom apartments at a cost exceeding $90,000 each. There are about 100,000 FEMA trailers wasting on the mainland. They can be bought for about $1,000 and moved here for a similar cost. The biggest expense would be sewer hookups, but every trailer park in Appalachia has solved that problem. There is an issue with the insulation, but in Hawaii with the windows seldom closed, does that matter? Trailers are small and simple, but aren’t they better than living under a tarp? When the lava comes, they can be moved out of the way.

Can unattached adults be given the option of a barracks-like environment, four walls, sanitation, a bed and a locker? The locker is important, it’s hard to get through the day carrying everything you own. In this century, everyone needs a phone. How can one get a job without a phone number?

One obvious difference between Hawaii and San Francisco though is density. Frisco (They hate that abbreviation) has almost a million people on 48 square miles. Hawaii has one fifth of the population but almost 100 times the land.

Land is not a real issue, except that most of it is owned by government or powerful trusts that do not want to give it up, or even share, no matter how worthy the cause. Why do they prefer an unsanitary homeless encampment barely out of sight to truly low cost but not invisible housing where potential employees can live and not have to commute 40 miles?

To his credit, Mayor Kim has negotiated temporary shelters on church grounds that will at least get volcano victims indoors with a modicum of privacy and security. The Legislature needs to see things similarly. They work for us, don’t they, not Owens-Corning, Pella and Weyerhaeuser?


As with “entitlements” SNAP and Medicaid, helping you neighbors is not just the charitable thing to do; a healthy population is in everyone’s best long-term interest.

Ken Obenski is a forensic engineer, now safety and freedom advocate in South Kona. He writes a biweekly column for West Hawaii Today. Email