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What fires tell us about housing for the poor
November 17, 2013 - Harry Eagar
The question isn't, why are so many people unhoused, but why so few?
After all, even in Hawaii, there are only a few hundred or somewhere in the low thousands of people living in tents along the beaches in Waianae or, until they were driven out recently, around Thomas Square. Yet there are hundreds of thousands who are either unemployed or work in jobs that pay too little to afford the cheapest apartment.
On Maui, the largest single class of work is retail trade, and while some people (working on commission) can do well, the majority make minimum wage or thereabouts. When I first moved to Maui, I had a full-time job but I also had time on my hands and wanted to learn more about how the tourist economy works, so I took a one-day-a-week job on Front Street selling posters.
At that time, the cheapest, run-down rental house (in the oldest part of Paia) went for $300 a month. Retail clerks earned $5 an hour. That's about $825 a month, say $700 after deductions. You could just about swing $300 rent, but not if you had to commute from Paia to Lahaina. And there were only a few $300 places in Paia, while there were thousands of $5 clerks.
The cheapest rental house (and these were very rare) went for $700.
The lowest wage has gone up (although the rightwingers want it to go down), but the price of housing has gone up faster since then.
It was not that difficult to figure out where the working poor were housed. In addition to working at The Maui News, I subscribed to the Honolulu Advertiser and (although it was not available by subscription) read the Star-Bulletin. I don't think most newspaper readers pay much attention to datelines, but reporters do.
House fires were infrequent on Maui but were reported every month or two from Oahu. And it quickly became apparent that there were a lot of fires in Kalihi, and, even more so, that the stories always included a paragraph about the Red Cross helping the survivors, who -- in Kalihi -- always numbered 10, 12, 15 people.
I had not then been to Kalihi, but I could easily picture it, and when later I did go there, that's how it was. I was reminded of this lesson this week by a fatal fire in Kalihi. According to the Star Advertiser:
"Residents say four families live in four sections of the house."
With Hawaii's low wages and high housing prices, you would expect the average number of persons per household to exceed the national average, and it does: 3.42 per family vs. 3.14 per family; and 2.89 vs. 2.58 per household.
Those numbers are much higher than when I first noticed the overcrowding in Kalihi. Twenty-five years ago, the average U.S. family size was just under 3.0, and Hawaii's was just over.
Hidden in those numbers are huge changes. For one thing, the only state with higher housing densities than Hawaii is California. My guess is that this reflects Asian immigration. High housing densities are not in themselves problematic. For social groups accustomed to them, they are even preferred, as witness the Manila mansions in the Kahului increments.
The notion of the three-generation household is strong also in China, although I have seen studies from Taiwan showing that the harmony associated with this family structure is mostly mythical.
But for most Americans, numerous people in one household is not preferred; and when they are assembled not by kinship but by poverty, high housing densities are pathological.
Also hidden in those statistics is the qualitative change in the size of housing. For Americans doing well, houses have grown more than 50% in size recently and are now about four times bigger than after World War II (when Levittown houses were 800 square feet, the same size as a Maui ohana).
Hotel rooms on Maui are now bigger than most people's houses; and in new houses, the bathrooms are as big as the houses of the poor. The closets are bigger.
In 1933, President Roosevelt said that a third of the nation was ill-housed. After 35 years of Reaganomics, we are almost back there again.
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