On Oct. 12, I had the opportunity to moderate two panel discussions at Bring Workers Home, a workforce housing forum in Honolulu, Hawaii, that brought together more than 90 local, state and national housing leaders to explore effective strategies to address local housing challenges. The event was hosted by the National Housing Conference and National Association of Realtors. The following other partners helped plan the forum: Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco; Hawaii Association of REALTORS®, Hawaii Housing Alliance, International Economic Development Council; Metropolitan Planning Council; and ULI Hawaii.
A range of panelists shared challenges and best practices. Several speakers highlighted the difficulty of providing affordable workforce housing in Hawaii, where tourism is the primary economic engine, providing low-wage jobs while driving up local home costs.
I was particularly struck by the comments made by James Hardway, executive director of the Hawaii Workforce Development Council. He explained that while the business community has identified three priorities related to workforce readiness related to education, skills, and broadened labor pool, they have added workforce housing to their list because they "cannot address other issues without doing something about workforce housing." He explained that trained workers are leaving the state, "taking their skills and purchasing power elsewhere," due to the cost of housing. "Right now, we're training people to go work in other states where you can buy a house ... There's no possible way we can grow the economy if workers can't afford to live here ... We have to do something to bring the cost of housing down." (View James's presentation.)
I also enjoyed hearing the passion of Darlene Porter, second vice president for employee relations/talent management at Aflac™, as she shared the success of their employer-assisted housing program, which provides down payment and closing cost assistance to its Columbia, S.C., employees through a first-time home buyer grant program. She explained Aflac's perspective is, "If the company takes care of its employees, the employees will take care of the company." (Darlene's and other presentations are available online.)
Honolulu will soon have the opportunity implement some of the best practices shared at this event, as the city and county received a Sustainable Communities Challenge Grant. This $2.3 million award will help create affordable workforce housing opportunities along the new transit line. As more working families have the chance to live in affordable homes near transit, they will be able to reduce their housing and transportation costs, reduce their carbon output, and reduce dependence on oil. Not only do these working families benefit, but as James Hardway observed, the state's economic development is contingent on increasing the supply of affordable housing and improving options for working families.