Reflections on Housing Density part 1 of 5 – A Lecture

This is part 1 of a five-part series on higher density housing in Hawaii. Parts two to five will address Hawaii’s seven issues that discourage higher density housing.

Part 2: Crime and Dogs

Part 3: Neighborliness and Multi-generational Living

Part 4: Technology Interference and Homeless Park Use

Part 5: Private Vehicles for Families with Children and Eldercare


The photos of buildings are not from Mrs. Arieff’s presentation. I chose them for their representation or similarity to her ideas.

“Density does not have to be ugly” was the main message of SPUR Editorial Director and New York Times opinion writer Allison Arieff in her “Density Done Right” lecture at UH Manoa Architecture Auditorium on May 2, 2019.

Photo by Andreas Dress on Unsplash

Her examples from other states and countries had these features:

  • Usually three-six story structures
  • Small community-use grassy areas
  • Pedestrian- and bike-friendly layouts
  • Mixed-use housing in urban zones

Her reasons for higher-density housing:

  • Decrease the carbon footprint
  • Reduce energy use
  • Provide more living arrangement options besides single-family homes and high-rises
  • Improve health of residents by reducing cars and increasing walking due to closer live-work proximity or using mass transit lines that go to work
Example of mixed use housing. Photo by Charles Etoroma on Unsplash

Other small-scale solutions for increasing density:

  • ADU’s for aging-in-place older parents while their children and grandchildren move into the larger, main residence (This is a Big Give. The parents scrimped and saved to buy and maintain the original home, while their kid’s family receives the benefit without the work.)
  • College students co-habitating with older people for free in exchange for services/chores (…my thoughts exactly)
  • Unrelated Millenials and Boomers living together (divided houses and ADU builders already do this in Kapahulu, Kaimuki, and the UH area)
  • Using pre-fab structures

In an article about the new, idealized living space, Arieff compares a McMansion of 10,690 square feet on a 65,340 square foot lot to a more sensible, environmentally responsible six-unit condo with 1,800 square feet units. However, the giant houses she discourages are not typical. We’ve seen these homes in Kahala, financed by wealthy foreigners. That’s not a neighborhood; it’s an impersonal Monopoly board. People who can afford McMansions also employ staff to clean house, manage the grounds, and sometimes nanny their kids. It is not an average suburban house with a homeowner who mows the lawn on Sundays.

The ideal condo she refers to is typical for a mid-size Hawaii home with two to six bedrooms and two or three bathrooms. A local single-family house with about 1,800 square feet currently sells for more than $800,000 and rents for around $3,000 a month. With housing prices so high, multi-generational living is common so our suburbs are higher density than the home-type would indicate.

Photo by Paolo Bendandi on Unsplash

If additional space is needed, homeowners renovate to accommodate extended family, simultaneously planning for childcare and eldercare. The oldest generation watches the grandkids while the middle generation works. This is particularly evident in Pearl City where you can usually tell multi-generational homes by the number of cars parked out front.

Although her ideas were not new or Hawaii-specific, Allison Arieff lives in a similarly expensive and crowded city (San Francisco), offers international and out-of-state housing experience, and has written on alternative housing for many years. It was helpful to see her examples of not-ugly higher density housing. They reminded me of Keauhou Lane (502 Keawe Street), the new apartments in Kakaako next to SALT. Keauhou Lane is income restricted, with studio and one bedroom apartments 298-451 square feet – about the size (400 square feet) of a small Accessory Dwelling Unit allowed on 3,500 to 4,999 square foot lots.

It would have been a more useful lecture if local planners and architects spoke as part of a panel sharing how high-density fits into local families, cultures, lifestyles, and budgets. The Honolulu Police Department and localized non-profits would provide a good viewpoint of high-density effects on crime.


Next, Part 2: Crime and Dogs

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