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Affordable Housing Community for Farm Workers Flourishes in Oahu

Thirteen years after a pineapple plantation shutdown left hundreds of workers at risk, the 150-acre Kunia Village has become a multi-generational refuge.

By Erica Sweeney 

When Del Monte Fresh Produce shut down its Kunia pineapple plantation in Oahu, Hawaii, in 2008, after 90 years on the island, it left hundreds of workers without jobs and on the verge of homelessness, since many lived on the land. But, two nonprofits stepped up to save Kunia Village, upgrade the housing units and provide affordable rental housing for the community. 

The Hawaii Agriculture Research Center (HARC) acquired Kunia Village for $10 and teamed up with the Rural Community Assistance Corporation (RCAC), a Sacramento-based CDFI, to develop a strategy to preserve the community. The organizations created Kunia Village Housing Partners in 2010 to rebuild and renovate 82 units in the village. RCAC provided a $1.8 million pre-development loan and a $6 million construction loan, obtained $20 million in financing from Wells Fargo Bank, and helped secure about $9 million in U.S. Department of Agriculture funding. 

“We really got invested in the project because it was a good thing to do,” says Denise Boswell, rural housing specialist at RCAC. She explains that RCAC, which was founded in 1978, started out as a consultant on the project but ended up becoming co-owner of Kunia Village after some of the larger lenders felt more comfortable having it as a part owner because of its experience in long-term housing projects. 

RCAC’s Loan Fund provides financing for affordable housing development, environmental infrastructure, community facilities and small businesses in rural areas across the western states. The organization also has lending programs for rental units on tribal lands and for acquiring and improving manufactured home parks. 

“We’ve made a lot of loans in Hawaii and our loan fund provided loans to developers in Hawaii to develop housing,” she says. “But, we had never owned or developed a project on our own in Hawaii.” 

So far, 82 units have been rehabilitated and, of those, 37 are brand-new construction. Some of the structures were built in the 1930s and ’40s and needed a lot of work. “Some of the homes were in such bad shape that we had to tear them down,” Boswell says. 

While she says it would have been easier to tear down and rebuild all the units, they renovated 45, required as part of Kunia Village’s placement on the National Register of Historic Places. The new homes were designed to resemble the existing plantation-style structures. 

The new homes opened to residents in 2017. The rental homes, which are two-, three- or four-bedroom, are available to people working in agriculture and dedicated to low-income households, with incomes equal to or less than 60% of the area’s median income limits set by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. That’s much needed in Hawaii, which has a significant and growing affordable housing crisis. Rent in the village is capped at 30% of a resident’s income. 

One family who moved into a three-bedroom home in the village after it opened in 2017 had been living in their car for three years, according to Honolulu Civil Beat. Other residents appreciate having a place for their children to play, living near where they work and the chance to build a sense of community. 

“Some of the residents were born in these homes and continue to raise children and grandchildren in these homes,” Boswell says. “Some are retirees who will be able to remain in the village.”

Kunia Village is more than just an affordable rental home development. The 150-acre community features a chapel, post office, gym, community center, farmers market, playground and a Head Start preschool program. 

The next phase includes restoring the rest of the 135 units in Kunia Village and possibly building more. They hope to eventually offer up to 200 affordable rental homes. Upgrades to the water system for the homes outside the completed 82 units and water treatment plants are also planned. There’s also talk of adding other amenities to the community, such as a medical facility. 

“Kunia Village showcases what is possible when a CDFI is committed to funding affordable housing,” she says. 

This story is part of our series, CDFI Futures, which explores the community development finance industry through the lenses of equity, public policy and inclusive community development. The series is developed in partnership with Next City.