To solve the climate crisis, we need to solve the housing crisis

In the fight against climate change, Kaua’i is simultaneously in first place and in last place.

Over the last ten years, KIUC skyrocketed Kaua’i from a 90% reliance on fossil fuels to 90% renewable energy on sunny days. And for that, we’re making national headlines.

But, over the same time period we‘ve increased the amount that we drive at a rate far higher than anywhere else in the country. The only state that matches Kaua’i’s increase in vehicle miles travelled is the rest of Hawai’i (at 10.8% more VMT over ten years,* we are perfectly tied with our state average, 3% more than anywhere else in the country, and 8% more than our nation-wide increase in VMT).

That’s not making headline news.

Info gathered from DBEDT

If you think that you’re sitting in a lot more traffic than you used to — you’re not imagining it.

Increasing tourists, increasing resident population, and decreasing fuel prices are all contributing factors — but, they’re not the entire story. For the last four consecutive years, we’ve relied on our cars more while walking, biking, carpooling, and taking the bus less (as a total percentage of trips).

Census survey data is aggregated into 5-year periods to increase accuracy
All data in above two graphs is from the census bureau’s American Community Survey

As fast as KIUC is transitioning us to renewable energy, we’re making up for it by driving more. Which is why 2016 was the first year on Kaua’i where emissions from transportation were higher than from electricity. This is a trend that is playing out nationwide.


We don’t have enough housing available in our existing towns. As the recent Kauai General Plan Update Land Use Buildout Analysis clearly states,

According to the County Buildout Analysis, 87% of the residentially zoned land in Lihu’e has already been developed.

And so 68% of new homes built since 1995 have been on either low-density residential lots or agricultural/open-zoned land far from our job centers and less than one percent in the multi-family zoning district (R-15 and R-20) within our commercial centers.

To put it all together — our towns are filled up and so we’re building further and further away. As we sprawl outwards, we become increasingly reliant on our cars — and walking, biking, and the bus become less viable as transportation options.

Since municipal services get less efficient as we spread apart, we are also spending increasingly more to maintain our government. If you live in or near a town, your increasing taxes are being used to subsidize the costs for those who live far away (for example, the .5% excise tax increase that we will be paying for with every purchase that goes towards the rising cost of road maintenance).

As I’ve written before (see Kaua’i’s Wicked Problem), this lack of housing in our town cores doesn’t just cause us to drive more and increase municipal spending, it’s also leading to increasing housing costs.

The market is pushing us to utilize outlying agricultural land and open space for home construction because there isn’t enough density in the residential districts. Yet, these low-density parcels are often too expensive for the average Kaua’i family (as I’ve written before, these are often zoned specifically to exclude low income families). As a home on a five-acre lot costs significantly more than half of a townhome on 7,000 square feet.

Because of this, home construction for primary residences has fallen off of a cliff in the last decade (there are a number of other potential reasons for this, explored more in this piece).

Chart is from the General Plan meeting on housing — 06/21/16

While Kauai saw an average of 596 new residences built every year from 1970 to 2010, this decade has averaged less than 75 per year.

This lack of supply is causing housing costs to skyrocket. At $730,000, Kaua’i’s median cost of housing is 300% higher than the national average, Hawai’i has the highest median rent in the nation (55% above national average), and the highest percentage of residents who spend more than 35% of their household income on their homes (including mortgage or rent, insurance and utilities).

Given this, it’s no surprise that the population of Hawai’i is declining (despite a strong economy and record low unemployment). There’s literally nowhere to go.

Wait a second, I thought this is a piece about climate change? Why are we talking about the cost of housing?

Because the climate crisis is a housing crisis. Renewable energy is only part of the problem — and it’s a part that our utility is rapidly solving. Housing and transportation is the other half. And, this isn’t a technological problem that’ll simply get fixed by electric cars (to be fair, renewable energy isn’t strictly a technological problem either).

Despite all of those humming Nissan Leafs, the success of the Prius and the fanfare of Tesla, only one in 20 vehicles on the road in Hawai’i is hybrid or electric, a number that has been declining since 2012. Here on Kaua’i, nearly 70% of new vehicles registered last year were trucks.

And so, vehicle fuel is by far our largest local contributor to climate change.

Check out Berkeley’s handy carbon footprint calculator

We don’t have time to wait for electric vehicles to take over the market. Instead, we need a paradigm shift in our land use patterns.

As climate writer David Roberts writes:

Electric cars are great (I am a big fan), but they are 1 percent of vehicles on the road today. Even the most optimistic forecasts put their penetration at 35 percent of new vehicles sold by 2040. In the meantime, zoning rules can be changed overnight. Mixed-use developments can be built in a year or two.

The fastest, cheapest way to reduce transportation emissions is to reduce the distances people need to travel, and the way to do that is to create communities where homes, businesses, and services are accessible by foot, bike, or transit…

If you want to tackle climate change, you need to support densification.

Or, in the words of the Urbanism Editor at Curbed,

The environmental cost of moving not just our bodies but our stuff around is quickly becoming the single biggest threat to our planet’s survival.

So, quite literally, the single best thing that a city can do for the planet is locate destinations — houses, jobs, grocery stores, schools — closer together so its residents expend less time, less money, and fewer fossil fuels traveling among them.

Or, in the words of climate activist Alex Steffen:

Effectively all the research we have says the best way to change urban systems to be more sustainable is build densely. When we build densely, we MAY have more impact on local ecologies, but we certainly have much, much less impact on the planet as a whole…

That’s why older ideas of urban sustainability — blocking change, de-urbanizing — is such a disaster: Fighting density is anti-environmental.


Because they have the same root causes, the solutions for our climate crisis are identical to the solutions for our housing crisis.

I’ve written extensively about potential solutions before (which are linked throughout this piece — the most notable one is here), so I won’t go back over all of it. But, the gist is that we need more housing options within our primary job centers. For Kaua’i, that means increasing the density of Lihu’e (the town with by far the highest mismatch between housing and jobs). The ARU bill that passed through council two weeks ago is a great start (I wrote about an early version of it here). So is the bill that passed last year allowing for multifamily homes to be built on low-density residential land. As I’ve argued before, the County’s move towards Form Based Code will help incentivize infill development at a pedestrian scale. And, as the General Plan calls for, we need to ensure that all new developments are located in close proximity to job centers, that they maximize their allotted density, and that they provide a mixture of housing types.

The Obama Whitehouse highlighted some other local government best practices as:

streamlining permitting processes, eliminating off-street parking requirements, reducing minimum lot sizes, and enacting high-density and multifamily zoning policies — to reduce overly burdensome land use restrictions and promote mobility and economic growth.

This isn’t about forcing people out of their cars

Before anyone starts yelling at me about forcing people to change their living habits, this isn’t about increasing density everywhere or forcing people out of their cars. As Mathew Yglesias has written at Vox, allowing for more density in job centers and transit hubs is simply about providing more options.

nobody is forcing anyone to do anything. It’s the status quo that forces a particular form of land use — detached houses with plenty of parking — on the vast majority of the developed land in America.

Right now, even if you wanted to — it’s almost impossible to find an affordable housing option (either a rental or home purchase) in close proximity to any jobs. And so it’s our current land use patterns that are forcing us to spend our lives sitting in traffic.

If you want to keep your single family home or live far from where you work— that’s totally fine. And if you live in a low-density residential neighborhood without any nearby jobs, then additional density there would likely result in a net increase in emissions (as this Berkeley study shows).

Other than reducing the cost of housing, the goal of effective local land use policy is to ensure that those who want to live near where they work can afford to live near where they work.

The status-quo isn’t working. It’s leading to an island with housing costs far out of reach for local families, it’s making us increasingly reliant on single occupancy vehicles, and it’s our primary driver of carbon emissions.

To solve the climate crisis, we need to solve the housing crisis.

*To account for year-to-year variance, the 10.8% increase is based on two five year averages- 2008–2012 and 2013–2017.

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