Finland state

Finland solves homelessness, and Hawaii can too

Stable housing is the foundation of thriving families and communities. In the 50 years since Hawaii first declared a housing crisis in 1970, that foundation has steadily eroded.

Hawaii has the highest housing costs relative to local wages in the country, with growing gaps between income and rental costs resulting in some of the highest homelessness and out-migration rates in the country.

This hurts both our people and our economy. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Finland, over the past decades, has virtually eliminated homelessness called “sleeping rough” and reduced housing costs for all its residents at the same time.

The success of the Finnish housing model is due to a national-level strategy where the state government provides financial subsidies on both the supply side (housing construction) and the demand side (helping tenants or home buyers) and counties provide land for affordable housing in exchange for infrastructure funding and other land use assistance.

Currently, government-funded housing accounts for 21% of Helsinki’s housing stock, although the target for new neighborhoods is 30% affordable housing, 20% affordable housing for sale with limited capital and 50% of private market housing not funded by the public.

In contrast, today only about 7% of Hawaii’s housing stock is subject to price restrictions due to initial public investment. The remaining 93% of housing is for rent (or sale) at market price and is not required to provide public services.

Homelessness in Finland - steady progress

Chronic disinvestment in housing by the public sector means that too much of our housing is unaffordable at local wages. To address this imbalance, the public sector—and by extension the general public—needs to play a greater role in housing policy discussions.

The series of homelessness awareness and housing solutions events last week created an opportunity to do just that.

To help present a vision of what greater public investment in housing might look like, this multi-county series featured housing finance and development experts from Finland, as well as two leaders from the Sami community (the indigenous people of the far north of Europe) to make the voice of indigenous peoples heard within the framework of a “people first” approach to housing policy.

The Finnish strategy is based on the fundamental belief that everyone should have access to housing as a human right. It’s a belief that has deep roots in Hawaii as well, even though our actions over the past few decades have fallen short of that value.

While the conference events drew on what was done elsewhere, they also focused on Hawaii’s strengths and potential. Events included discussions on the history of land use in Hawaii; promoting indigenous values ​​as housing solutions; listen to the stories of people with lived experience of homelessness; sources of income for affordable housing and more.

Person asleep wrapped in garbage bags along Kalakaua Avenue the day after the Safe Sound Waikiki program press conference with local Waikiki lawmakers and business leaders.
A homeless man along Kalakaua Avenue. Does Finland offer a solution to the Hawaii crisis? Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Most importantly, the series provided attendees with the opportunity to become more involved in advancing affordable housing for Hawaii and its people. Residents who want to help make Hawaii more affordable and end homelessness should consider joining the Hawaii Housing Affordability Coalition at www.HiHAC.org.

As Blossom Feiteira, a longtime housing advocate, said at the end of the conference: “No organization can do this alone. It takes a lot of hands to clean the kalo field, plant, harvest and maintain. Let’s take this kuleana to the next level and get our people where they deserve to be.