By Andrew Gomes | August 25, 2020
*Photo by George F. Lee
A new residential tower added to Honolulu’s urban skyline earlier this year has introduced some high-rise living with an incredibly small footprint.
The 16-story building in Kakaako, Nohona Hale, represents Hawaii’s first “micro-unit” rental apartment tower and is now home to more than 100 residents who live on about as much land as one single-family residence occupies in many older suburban Oahu neighborhoods.
Each Nohona Hale studio has 285 square feet of interior living space, including a kitchen and a bathroom.
Units also include 70-square-foot lanais with distant partial ocean views, and the building has no automobile parking for residents.
Larry Lee, who lives in the tower with his dog, Rue, now views his queen-size bed as too big because of how much floor space it takes up, but overall he said his new home is quite pleasant, especially given the monthly rent.
“Two people can live here comfortably,” said the retired 69-year-old lifelong Hawaii resident who previously lived with his son. “This is a nice place.”
Monthly rent ranges from $559 for residents with extremely low incomes defined by the federal government to $1,111 for residents who earn more but are still in the low-income category.
Of 111 apartments, 99 are reserved for the later group with annual incomes up to $52,920 for a single person or $60,480 for a couple, which represents 60% of the median income in Honolulu. Eleven units are reserved for tenants earning up to half as much, and one unit is for a manager.
Stephanie Serra said the opportunity to live at Nohona Hale was a godsend.
A single woman with a disability, Serra said her past living conditions included homelessness, a closet and a bedroom in a house.
“These are, to me, huge,” she said of the Nohona Hale apartments. “It’s perfect for me. It’s new. It’s fabulous. I am blessed. Literally I’m not moving. They’re going to have to take me out in a coffin.”
Tenants moved in between February and March following a lottery that drew 243 applicants. Some finishing touches on the building are still being made, and a grand-opening ceremony was sidelined by the COVID-19 outbreak.
The effort to produce Nohona Hale goes back six years to an idea from the Hawaii Community Development Authority, a state agency that regulates development in Kakaako, to use a remnant parcel that was once home to a Seafarers International Union hiring hall and had become mostly a parking lot.
HCDA issued a request for proposals in 2014 to build affordable micro-unit housing on the state-owned 10,409-square-foot plot at 630 Cooke St.
In 2015, a partnership between New York-based Bronx Pro Group and California-based nonprofit EAH Housing proposed an initial version of what would become Nohona Hale and was selected over six competitors.
The partnership was given a 65-year land lease at $1 a year, and obtained mainly state financing for the $53 million project with conditions that the project keep rents affordable to tenants with low incomes throughout the lease term.
HCDA’s endeavor aimed to produce affordable housing in a form with higher construction costs — a high-rise — given that the land was not an expense.
Some concerns were expressed over whether the project would be desirable, given the small size of units and lack of car parking for tenants.
Samantha Magistro, a Bronx Pro principal, told state officials in 2017 that several features of Nohona Hale would make the apartments attractive, including 9-foot ceilings, lanai space and floor-to-ceiling windows accessing the lanais.
“We’re not just cramming boxes into a building,” she said at the time.
The project also was seen as appealing to tenants who ride bicycles, mopeds and the bus. Bike and moped parking space is in the building. Also, a station for the city’s planned rail line, which is projected for completion in 2026, is to be built about two blocks from Nohona Hale.
Marian Gushiken, director of real estate development for EAH Housing Hawaii, said high interest from prospective tenants was a pleasant surprise because the market for affordable micro-housing with no parking for residents was untested in Hawaii.
“We believe this is a direct reflection of the pent-up demand for affordable housing, especially in the urban core, where even before the arrival of rail, transit-oriented development is achievable,” she said in a statement.