Not Enough Homes in Paradise
- REALTOR® Jim Edmonds refused to ignore the housing affordability crisis on the Hawaiian island of Kaua’i as skyrocketing prices pushed out locals.
- He launched PAL Kaua’i to spur the development of housing for purchase or rental by local residents.
- To date, the group has completed 13 units with another 45 underway.
Hawaii’s westernmost island of Kaua’i is best known as an idyllic vacation destination, a beautiful getaway for relaxation and rejuvenation. For many locals, the story is entirely different. Kaua’i is struggling with a severe housing shortage that is forcing native Hawaiians to leave the island permanently.
Half of all homes sold on Kaua’i are purchased by non-locals, and 85% of all building permits are pulled by newcomers. Today, there are more native Hawaiians living on the mainland than in Hawaii, but Jim Edmonds is working to change that.
A REALTOR® based on Kaua’i since 1988, Edmonds has seen the devastating effects of a changing marketplace up close. Over the years, skyrocketing prices have put homes out of reach for working individuals and families while rentals became coveted high-end vacation properties. Many “second homes” sit empty, as if to mock the dire situation many locals find themselves in with no place to live.
While the shift to luxury properties may have been a boon for many real estate practitioners on the island, Edmonds has kept his focus on the people being left behind. The broker-owner of Emerald Isle Properties in the town of Kilauea, Edmonds first tuned into the growing housing inequities seven years ago when a young agent in his brokerage was finding it impossible to locate entry-level homes for workers in their 20s.
He began reaching out to native Hawaiians to learn about the growing affordability crisis and started networking with nonprofits, affordable housing advocates and local officials. In 2018, he and his wife Harvest formalized their efforts in conjunction with islanders to found PAL Kaua’i–Permanently Affordable Living. Their unflinching mission is to bring back affordable housing to Kaua’i and keep longtime residents from leaving Hawaii.
"We want to restore hope for the people of Kaua’i,” Edmonds says.
In collaboration with like-minded partners, Edmonds is now busy developing affordable housing projects, consisting of rental and for-purchase properties. One 13-unit apartment building opened in May, with another 45 single-family homes under construction. They are reserved for Kaua’i residents and are within walking distance to many jobs and services. PAL uses a priority and preference point system to select tenants and home buyers who already work nearby.
“If you don't have housing, you don't have anything.”
“We have a huge amount of momentum and visibility right now. People are jumping in, and the county housing director is sending people to help us,” Edmonds says.
While the current impact may seem small in comparison to the overall need, he has a longer-term plan to scale up the efforts: Launching a construction company this year has enabled Edmonds to set a goal to build another 500 to 1,000 homes in the next three years. Then, he plans to build a manufacturing facility on the island for prefabricated homes to further address the housing shortfall.
As of mid-August, there were only 26 homes priced under $1 million for sale on Kaua’i. The least expensive home on Kaua’i’s North Shore was $1.5 million—a 23-mile stretch of land that was mainly inhabited by sugar cane workers just 30 years ago.
Meanwhile, rents on the island are typically $1,300 per bedroom per month for working families lucky enough to have a place to live. “Everyone is just trying to keep the roof over their heads,” says Larry Graff, PAL’s chief operating officer. “That means serious choices are made when it comes to medications and food.”
Housing and transportation costs consume more than 60% of the average household income of Kauaʻi residents, resulting in overcrowded rentals, according to the Kaua'i County Housing Agency’s Consolidated Plan. The county, with a year-round population of 72,000, estimates a need for 5,000 more homes today and another 4,000 by 2035.
The housing crisis is attracting more serious local attention of late as the wealth gap reaches an untenable level. “The politics are changing because everybody knows friends or relatives who are leaving,” Edmonds says. “We know a lady who bought a bigger car so she and her two daughters could live in it.”
While only 7% of the land on Kauai is zoned for development, Edmonds is working with city and county officials to rezone areas to allow for greater density. He says he is in regular contact with the mayor, county planning director and county housing director to ensure projects move forward as quickly as possible.
The lack of affordable housing, along with the overall high cost of living, has exacerbated the homeless problem on Kaua’i, which Edmonds is also involved with. PAL has teamed up with several other nonprofits to provide services.
“This little island has the worst homeless crisis in America. I have heard of five suicides since I started this because [people] couldn't find a place to live.” Edmonds says. “This is a full-blown tragedy.”
PAL’s broader vision for stronger, self-sustaining communities includes immediate actions the group takes to help people in desperate situations. After county officials removed Carrie Laatsch and Lincoln Niau, a homeless couple, from the beach where they were living, PAL was able to help.
They received a voucher from a partner nonprofit organization, Women In Need, for an available unit at PAL’s Kauhale O Kekaha apartment building. “They were super genuine, and they hired me to clean the units to get them move-in ready,” Laatsch says.
PAL purchased the 13-unit apartment building in February 2022 for $2.5 million, previously occupied mostly by part-time residents from the mainland. Eleven of the units have been rented affordably through the Kaua’i County Housing Department’s Housing Voucher Program, and two are under renovation.
Since moving into their own apartment, Niau was also able to get better access to health care to address his kidney failure and dialysis needs. They’re able to eat healthier foods because they have a refrigerator and stove. The landscaping business they started is growing.
“Being houseless does a lot to your mental health,” Laatsch says. “As a family, having a home has given us more of a foundation.”
“Faith is the strongest force in the universe. And that is what's behind this work. The hard part about faith is you can't just flip it on like a switch—you have to be able to have it even when it doesn't look like things are working. That's what the first four years of this work was like—we'd run an article in the newspaper asking for help and somebody would write to us and say, ‘Why are you trying to help these deadbeats?’”
In March 2022, PAL broke ground on 11 affordable single-family residences in its Kauhale O Namahana project in Kilauea. And in June, PAL started work on 17 affordable single-family residences in Kalaheo, on the south side of the island.
By the end of 2022, PAL plans to break ground on another 17 affordable single-family residences in Kapa’a, co-developed with Kaua’i Habitat for Humanity.
Benefit to All
“Our mission, the purpose of PAL, is helping the whole island,” says Graff. All of PAL's projects will include cost-saving amenities, such as solar power, edible landscaping, shared electric vehicles and charging stations, and bicycles.
Another goal for PAL is stabilizing homeless people through rental housing and then eventually helping them attain homeownership through education and programming to help tackle debt, save money and find down payment assistance, says Brian Alston, PAL’s programs and assets director.
Success for PAL means ensuring that households of teachers, police and firefighters—who struggle to make ends meet in this expensive area—can continue to live and work on the island. “We have built an organization that we think can solve this crisis within the next 10 to 15 years,” Edmonds says. “This is such emotional work for us. The aloha spirit is alive and well on this island. That’s part of what drives us to do our best to help.”
Greater community acceptance for affordable housing, along with the powerful team of volunteers and employees that Edmonds has assembled, are helping increase PAL’s visibility and momentum to get the work done. “I need to be part of the solution,” he says. And the evidence is apparent with each new completed housing unit.