In homelessness crisis, Hawaii eyes thatched ‘hale’ homes

HONOLULU (AP) — When Daniel Anthony spent the night sleeping in a traditional Hawaiian structure known as a “hale,” the sound of rain falling on the thatched roof made him feel like he was sleeping in the forest.

“This is the sound of aloha,” he said, recalling the experience. The hales, he said, are also a solution to a crisis of homelessness in Hawaii, which has the highest rate of homelessness per capita in the nation.  

Anthony, lawmakers and community members are pushing to revive the Hawaiian tradition of living in hale (pronounced hah-lay), thatched homes made from local trees and plants as a way to provide more affordable housing.

Though a bill to ease restrictions on building hale died after critics brought up safety concerns, advocates are trying to bring attention to a type of housing that celebrates culture and uses environmentally sustainable techniques to house the homeless.

“If we can use invasive species, which we’re saying is out of control, to construct housing in an area where they say we’re in a housing crisis, how is this not a solution?” Anthony said. Homes based on indigenous architecture are found from Austin, Texas — where tipi style homes are part of an affordable housing community — to Tahiti, where thatched homes lure honeymooners.

In Hawaii, a revival of hale building led to dozens of the structures throughout the islands, used for gatherings, canoe storage and teaching about cultural traditions. Building a hale can cost from $30,000 for a 180-square-foot structure to $95,000 for 600-square-feet, including labor and materials, depending on size and location, according to rough estimates from Holani Hana, a nonprofit that builds non-residential hale to promote Hawaiian cultural values.

Anthony believes he could build a hale for less — about $1,000 to buy parachute cord to secure the frame and thatching — using invasive species harvested from nature. By comparison, the converted shipping containers Honolulu recently deployed to shelter homeless people on Sand Island cost $9,117 per unit for a 72-square-foot room for a couple, or $7,717 for a 49-square-foot room for singles, and each shipping container holds two couple units or three singles units, according to the city. An apartment can cost more than $325 per square foot to build, according to the Hawaii Public Housing Authority, or $195,000 for a 600-square-foot apartment.

Maui County was the first to include hale in its building code, giving the structures a sense of parity with western buildings. Hale builders gather ironwood, eucalyptus or other trees for the frame and pili grass, sugar cane or ti leaves for the thatched roofs and walls. But while sleeping in hale is allowed in some Hawaii counties, no cooking, open flames, electricity, extension cords or generators are permitted, and obtaining building a permit can be difficult.

Sen. J. Kalani English, who pushed Maui County to adopt its hale building code, envisions updating those standards to a modern interpretation of indigenous Hawaiian architecture. He has stayed in thatched homes in Tahiti and throughout French Polynesia, some with sliding glass windows and air conditioning, he said.

“I’ve always envisioned a traditional style structure — indigenous architecture — with Wi-Fi and internet and TV and wall plugs and all of that stuff plugged into it,” English said. English is hoping to encourage more people in Hawaii to be trained in the art of hale building, incorporating indigenous architecture traditions from Samoa, Marshall Islands and other Pacific Islands.

Francis Palani Sinenci, a master hale builder who has constructed more than 160 non-residential hale in Hawaii, was hesitant to support widespread development of the structures to address homelessness.

“I cannot see hale everywhere, under the bridges,” Sinenci said. “One of them catches fire, they’re going to ban all hales.” “But I can see that the Hawaiians that are living on the beach because they’ve been displaced from their property, maybe they should have a place where they could build a hale for traditional living,” Sinenci added.

English co-sponsored legislation to encourage city and state officials to set aside land for hale building and to exempt the structures from some planning and zoning requirements, but state agencies and the Honolulu planning department opposed the bill.

On Oahu’s West side, residents living near a homeless encampment envision helping residents build a village of traditional hale, including modern technology such as solar panels, said Marcus Paaluhi, a member of the Waianae Coast Neighborhood Board.

The head of the encampment, Twinkle Borge, said she’s excited about the idea of collaborating to build a hale as a community gathering space, but she’s unsure about turning the encampment into a hale village.

The encampment is on state land without a lease, and Borge is working on getting nonprofit status to help stay on the land. “Any time that we can find ways to make it easier and cheaper for people to build homes, I think it’s worth supporting,” said state Sen. Maile Shimabukuro, who represents Waianae and co-sponsored the hale bill.

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