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Affordable Housing is Vital for Middle Class

Updated: Feb 2, 2023

By: Sterling Higa

Through this series, the Hawaiʻi Island Housing Coalition aims to raise awareness on the growing challenges and collective efforts to meet the housing needs in our community and address the wide range of barriers contributing to the crisis.

If you’re not struggling with the cost of housing, you know someone who is: a family member, friend, coworker or neighbor.

Teachers, civil servants, skilled laborers, nurses and doctors, hospitality workers – these vital members of the middle class are struggling to get by. Many are pessimistic about calling Hawaiʻi home because they feel they can’t afford to live here. And some are leaving, leading to five consecutive years of statewide population decline.

As local residents leave to pursue opportunities elsewhere, we lose our sense of community and culture. Families are divided by an ocean as relatives move to other states like Washington, California or Nevada. Malihini arrive while kamaʻāina and kanaka depart. This dislocation can be avoided, but only if we take action to address housing needs throughout our community.

The cost of housing affects everyone. Our traditional focus on meeting the housing needs of those earning 60% of the area median income has led to a neglect of middle class families earning between 80% and 140% of the area median income.

Many members of the middle class feel that their housing needs are not being met. Some are spending half their income on rent, far more than the 30% that would be affordable. Others can’t afford to move out from their parents’ homes and start their own households. Meanwhile, home prices rise far faster than wages, and those who don’t already own a home struggle to compete with mainland and foreign buyers who can offer more than the asking price.

State and county government should work together to address the workforce housing needs of the middle class. We need affordable housing solutions not only for our most disadvantaged communities but also for the middle class.

Our middle class is fragile. Families in Hawaiʻi county are especially vulnerable, as the county lags behind the state median household income, $65,401 to $83,173. Aloha United Way estimates that one third of Hawaiʻi households are ALICE (asset limited, income constrained, employed). These working-class families live on the brink of poverty. Unexpected job loss or a health crisis could push them over the edge.

In West Hawaiʻi, an absence of workforce housing leaves many workers commuting up to two-hours each way from Puna and Kaʻū to resorts on the Kohala coast. To avoid the commute, some sleep in their cars in hotel parking lots and along roadsides. This commuting lifestyle disrupts families and communities, and it is unjust.

There are hundreds of unfilled positions at resorts and businesses in West Hawaiʻi, in part because of the lack of affordable housing on that side of the island. With rising gas prices adding to the cost of commuting, workers are reluctant to accept these positions which require a long commute. Meanwhile, the public buses that crisscross the island are already full to capacity.

The middle class deserves better. They deserve housing close to their place of employment. Hawaiʻi county should strive to deliver workforce housing close to major employment centers. The state should assist in whatever way it can, providing land, infrastructure and financing for workforce housing development.

When we eliminate long commutes, we strengthen the family. And when we strengthen the middle class, we strengthen society as a whole. Affordable housing is necessary not only for our disadvantaged communities but also for our hard-working middle class.

Over the past two years, Vibrant Hawaiʻi, a non-profit dedicated to multi-sector collaboration and partnership has formed and supported multi-sector working groups focused on community-led solutions to address complex issues affecting our community: Economy, Education, Health and Wellbeing, Resilience Hubs, and Housing. Vibrant Hawaiʻi’s mission is to empower the Hawaiʻi community by increasing equitable opportunities, shifting deficit narratives and systems, and implementing strategies that are developed and resourced by the community and reflect native intelligence. To learn more, visit

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