Housing Authority & University Partnerships are a Win-Win

The Hawaiʻi Public Housing Authority and the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa's long-term collaboration is intended to best serve Hawaiʻi's communities.
Local News

Students speaking with neighborhood residents in community engagement pilot on Parking Day 2019.

As a community-driven organization, HPHA values partnerships that open opportunities and resources for Hawaiʻi’s most vulnerable citizens. This is why HPHA has been working with the University of Hawaiʻi (UH), unlocking a wealth of expert knowledge and resources to maximize the organization’s ability to serve Hawaiʻi. 

‍While the Department of Housing and Urban Development has sought to support collaborations between housing authorities, businesses, and community organizations since 1994, most are limited to only a few types: academic course integration, hands-on but short-term design projects, or student-specific financial assistance programs.

‍By contrast, HPHA has chosen to cultivate long-term, process-oriented partnerships and develop a coherent set of design principles, much like New York City’s Public Housing Authority (NYCHA) has done in outlining a “comprehensive approach to urban design across its portfolio, individual project planning, scoping, and design” in their Connected Communities Guidebook. This kind of collaborative work offers enhanced long-term community impact by recognizing the value of careful and responsive design at the foundation of public housing and community-building. Choosing to prioritize local, innovative design partnerships, HPHA is among the leaders of forward-thinking housing authorities across the country.

HPHA & University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa

The University of Hawaiʻi Community Design Center (UHCDC) is a collective of UH staff, faculty, students, and affiliates who work on innovative design projects around the Hawaiian Archipelago. Housed in the School of Architecture at UH Mānoa, the Center emphasizes student learning and hands-on research, helping young people develop skills while offering clients proof-of-concept design services.

Local neighborhoods at the center of HPHA's new identity.

It was UHCDC that assisted with HPHA’s recent redesign—a new logo and website responsive to the lessons learned from the pandemic. The website provides easy, digital access to vital tools for residents: rental payment, the housing waitlist, and tenant employment opportunities, among others. Moreover, the new logo represents the “identity” of the organization. Abstracted from the shapes of neighborhood streets around the islands, this logo creatively reinforces HPHA’s commitment to Hawaiʻi and its residents.

A Long-standing Partnership

Initial conversations began in 2017, with project work beginning January 2019 on the Re-Imagining HPHA Series, a “multidisciplinary initiative … aimed at re-thinking public housing programs and facilities in an effort to support HPHA’s mission and long term goals.”

This series incorporated numerous university departments, including the School of Architecture, the Sociology Department, and the Department of Urban and Regional Planning. Together, these departments conducted in-depth research reports, producing valuable considerations around design (authored by Karla Sierralta, AIA and Brian Strawn, AIA), development (Philip Garboden, PhD and Sara Doermann, MURP), and sociological concerns (Jennifer Darrah-Okike, Ph.D., Philip Garboden, Ph.D. and Nathalie Rita, Ph.D.). 

‍Design perspectives posed the question: What could the future of Hawaiʻi’s housing look like? 

Answering this question turned into a substantial project called “Future of Hawaiʻi’s Housing: Exploring Housing for All.” Research began with a bottom-up, exploratory approach, interviewing thirty families in HPHA housing—from rural to urban centers—across the islands. These interviews sought to understand what “home” means to people and brought in critical perspectives from residents. 

Undergraduate architecture students participating in an Integrated Course at UH Mānoa in 2019.

Building on this knowledge, UHCDC also interviewed urban architectural and planning experts from UH Mānoa—like Hawaiʻiʻs resident housing expert Philip Garboden—alongside experts from across the nation. The Center also analyzed a broad array of case studies, both local and global, and hosted conferences and symposiums centered on housing and development. Hawaiʻi-specific density studies and visualizations were also integrated into undergraduate architecture courses, aimed at exploring what “comfortable density” can look like in Hawaiʻi.

Holistic Housing Design Framework

Research findings were translated into the Holistic Housing Design Framework and Toolkit, which is meant for “public housing authorities, planners, academics, and designers to engage citizens in envisioning, planning, and designing mixed-income, mixed-finance housing for all.”

The Holistic Housing Toolkit includes three manuals, five sets of sorting cards, and a digital application.

Comprised of three manuals, five sets of sorting cards, and a digital application, the research-informed toolkit centers on five guiding principles. These principles suggest the following of truly holistic housing: 

  • Is pedestrian-centered, environmentally friendly, and considers socioeconomic equity
  • Relies on a nested understanding of home as an integrated part of a larger framework
  • Carefully considers both the natural and built environments
  • Invites the community to actively participate across the entire planning and design process
  • Supports the physical, mental, social, educational, and economic well being of its residents through moments of crisis.

This framework emphasizes specific strategies to further inform future HPHA developments, like finding ways to connect neighbors within a given building, working with the natural environment rather than against it, and putting people first. 

Years of collaborative efforts between HPHA and UHCDC are documented in the Hawaiʻi Housing Lab site (HHL), an entity led by UHCDC’s Karla Sierralta and Brian Strawn to highlight collaborations with HPHA. They describe HHL as a “research-based design platform exploring Holistic Housing for the Hawaiian archipelago and the rest of the world.”

The Value of Collaboration

Collaborations like these are valuable not just because they involve diverse stakeholders and integrate community input into ongoing and new developments. They also are ideal in terms of scale: every entity involved is small enough to keep their focus local, to understand the particular needs and challenges of living and developing in Hawaiʻi, yet together, they create a collective entity sizable enough to address large-scale housing and development questions across the islands.

By partnering with university entities, HPHA has access not just to an extensive array of experts, but also involves university students in hands-on learning and modeling for holistic public housing right here at home. Most importantly, these partnerships put HPHA in the best position to continue serving Hawaiʻi’s most vulnerable with integrity, adaptability, and excellence.


For more about goings-on at HPHA, visit our News and Updates pages.