Hawai‘i State Legislature Approves $1 Billion for Affordable Housing, Increases Minimum Wage to $18 an Hour

Housing advocates are celebrating the recent passage by the Hawai‘i state legislature of several historic bills to support low-income renters and individuals who are unhoused in the state. The bills would create a $500-per-month housing subsidy for low-income families, source-of-income protections for renters, and a landlord-participation-incentive program, while also expanding funds and reducing administrative barriers to help develop housing for people experiencing homelessness and allocating $600 million in flexible resources to address the housing needs of native Hawaiians. In addition to passing these bills, the legislature approved raising the state’s minimum wage to $18 per hour by 2028, putting Hawaiʻi in line to have the highest minimum wage of any state in the country. If signed into law by Governor David Ige, the bills would help reverse decades of worsening housing instability, as wages and assistance programs have failed to keep up with soaring housing costs and residents have increasingly struggled to access stable housing.

The new bills vary in focus. Two of them – SB206 and HB1752 – are designed to support the utilization of Housing Choice Vouchers (HCVs). Hawaiʻi consistently fails to expend resources it receives from the federal government to support its HCV program, in part due to widespread discrimination against voucher holders, 70% of whom identify as people of color. SB206 and HB1752 would improve voucher utilization rates and help families better access affordable housing in communities of their choice, the first by extending source-of-income protections and the second via a program incentivizing landlords to accept vouchers.

Two other bills – HB2510 and HB2233 – would support affordable housing through economic measures. According to recent estimates, a minimum wage worker in Hawaiʻi must work 149 hours per week at the current minimum wage of $10.10 per hour to afford a two-bedroom apartment in the state. HB2510 would raise the minimum wage to $18 per hour, while HB2233 would offer a monthly housing benefit for low-income families. These bills would thus help bridge the gap between renter incomes and the cost of housing.

Another bill, HB2512, would extend to 2026 the Ohana Zone Pilot Program, which provides funding to develop housing and provide supportive services to people experiencing homelessness. HB2512 would also exempt some projects from certain planning, building, and permitting requirements, reducing costs and expediting the construction of more affordable housing.

HB2511, meanwhile, would provide $600 million to the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands (DHHL) to address the affordable housing crisis faced by native Hawaiians. Established in 1921, the DHHL is a land trust designed to promote homesteading by Native Hawaiians with the purpose of returning members of this community to land that was taken from their forebearers. Due to decades of underfunding, Hawaiian Home Lands has a waitlist of approximately 28,000 native Hawaiians, many of whom have been on the list for decades. HB2511 would provide flexible resources to help households on the waitlist secure affordable housing.

The enactment of these and the other bills is a major success, the result of years of work by advocacy organizations in the state. For example, Hawaiʻi Appleseed Center for Law & Economic Justice (Hawaiʻi Appleseed), an NLIHC state partner, helped form Raise Up Hawaiʻi in 2016 to fight for a living wage and the Hawaiʻi Tax Fairness Coalition in 2017 to create a more equitable tax system. Then, in 2021, Hawaiʻi Appleseed formed the Hawaiʻi Housing Affordability Coalition (HIHAC), which brought impacted renters and houseless individuals together with service providers and other stakeholders to push for the enactment of affordable housing policies during Hawaiʻi’s 2022 legislative session. Each coalition employed a range of strategies to advance its cause, using email and social media tools to engage supporters and releasing reports and fact sheets showing the potential impacts of proposals. The coalitions also worked closely with housing champions in the legislature and the Governor’s office and held rallies across the state and at the capital, and they published op-eds in local media while engaging the business community, health care providers, and other sectors. The coalitions also supported the work of Native Hawaiian organizations that led the effort for the DHHL appropriation.

By the close of the 2022 legislative session, bills aligned with each of HIHAC’s policy priorities had been passed. HICAC attributes much of its success to engaging people with lived experience of homelessness and housing insecurity and helping them bring their stories and solutions directly to lawmakers. Notably, the coalition worked with members of Pu’uhonua O Wai’anae, a village of about 250 people living unhoused on the island of O’ahu, and helped people travel to the state capitol to testify in support of HB2512.

Though each bill included compromises, coalition members express pride in their achievements and have resolved to continue organizing to build upon their successes during next year’s legislative session. “This is an historic legislative session for Hawaiʻi’s struggling working families,” said Gavin Thornton, executive director of Hawaiʻi Appleseed. “It happened because of an extraordinary coming together of organizations and everyday people pushing for the investments Hawaiʻi’s residents and communities need to thrive.”

Arjuna Heim, organizer for the Hawaiʻi Housing Affordability Coalition, agreed: “This has been an overall successful legislative session. We are looking forward to building on and carrying this momentum into next year and city council sessions and continue to push for solutions to solving Hawaiʻi’s housing crisis.”

Hawaiʻi’s 2022 legislative session closed on May 5. Governor Ige now has until June 27 to sign the bills into law or decide whether he will issue any vetoes.

For more information about Hawaiʻi Appleseed and the advocacy efforts that led to the enactment of the bills, contact Gavin Thornton at [email protected]