Estimating the Need for Rental Assistance in Hawaii


By Philip ME Garboden and Isabelle Picciotto

Renters in Hawaii are at significant risk due to the economic downturn. Roughly 40% of all households in Hawaii rent their homes. They have significantly lower income than homeowners, with a median household income of $57,000 compared with $100,000 for homeowners. Their housing tenure is by nature less secure and their assets more limited. Federal protections for homeowners are far from perfect, but they are certainly more robust than those protecting renters, the majority of the responsibility for which has been pushed to states and counties.

Although data on the current housing situation is far from complete, it appears that the augmented unemployment payments (the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation, FPUC) have done a fairly good job  preventing the worst from happening so far. But that program is set to expire August 1. Unemployed workers will still be eligible for standard Unemployment Insurance (UI) but the payments will drop substantially – to roughly 60% of the individual’s previous income. Thousands of renters will then likely face unsustainable housing burdens.

Here we assess the additional burden renters will face in just the second half of 2020 – after the expiration of FPUC but before the deadline for CARES expenditures on January 1st. Our forecasts suggest that many families may struggle well beyond this date; we have chosen this abridged timeline because it’s most relevant to the immediate policy decisions currently being debated.

Our focus is the “COVID rent deficit” the amount of rent subsidy that would be required to return all unemployed renters to the rent burden they experienced before the economic shutdown. We estimate this deficit under several policy scenarios, ranging from complete termination of the FPUC program to scenarios involving some extension of the FPUC or a state version of augmented UI benefits.

Two comments on our choice of measure: First, we recognize that a housing crisis existed before COVID, with many families homeless, doubled-up, or unsustainably burdened. To return families to baseline is simply a metric of the impact of the COVID recession, not an estimate of what it would take to fund a robust housing safety net. Second, the rent deficit metric does not distinguish between those households for whom the increased housing burden is manageable versus those whose burden places them a greatest risk for adverse outcomes related to the crisis. 

It is also important to note that we are only estimating the amount of rent subsidy necessary to return households to baseline housing burdens. Food, transportation, healthcare, and education are not considered in this analysis. Under all of our scenarios, almost all households hit by unemployment will have fewer resources overall.


Given data limitations, job losses can not be cleanly connected to household income. We know how many people have lost their jobs, but we don’t have good data on what types of households those families lived in and what their rents are. Many households in Hawaii have multiple wage earners including spouses and adult children. It is hard to know, then, precisely how estimated job losses during the recession will impact housing burdens.

Consider the following examples:

1. A single mother earns $30,000 per year working in retail at the airport ($2,500 per month). She has two children and so pays $1,500 in rent for a small two-bedroom apartment. It’s a stretch under normal times, as 60% of her income goes to rent. To make matters worse, her job disappeared during the shutdown and doesn’t seem to be coming back any time soon. 

While she was receiving the FPUC augmented unemployment insurance, her income actually increased to $3,900. Once it ends though, her UI benefits will drop to $1,500, meaning her rent will take up all of her income.

How much of a rent subsidy would be required to put her back at her pre-crisis rent burden? Since she’s now making $1,500 from UI, a 60% burden would mean she could pay $900 in rent ($1,500 * .6 = $900). To get there, she’d need a $600 subsidy each month ($1,500 – $600 = $900). 

She’ll still have less left over for other expenses ($600 per month, compared to $1000 before she lost her job), but she should be able to keep her housing.

2. A middle aged couple lives with their adult son. The wife earns $55,000 per year as floor manager at a hotel, and the husband makes $30,000 part-time in construction. The son is in school, but has a part-time job that brings in $10,000 to the household. Altogether, the family earns $95,000 a year or $7,900 a month. They rent a single-family house for $3,000 which costs them 38% of their income – not bad by Hawaii standards. When COVID hit, the son and father kept working, but the mother lost her job. The augmented unemployment benefits more or less kept the household even in terms of income, but when FPUC expires they’ll lose 40% of the primary breadwinner’s salary, dropping their monthly household income from $7,900 to $5,750 a month. Their rent burden will increase to 52%.

While the family is in a better position than some, they’ll need a roughly $800 per month rent subsidy to get back to their pre-crisis housing burden. Again, their non-housing income will decline (in this case by nearly $1,500), but their housing will remain manageable.

These are just two examples among thousands, but they’re presented to help understand what our outcome variable, the COVID Rent Deficit, means. The sum total of all these calculations gets us to our final result.


The primary data come from the American Community Survey (ACS) 2018, provided by the University of Minnesota’s Integrated Public Use Microdata Series (IPUMS). This data is a random subsample of information for those who participated in the ACS. Data for 2019 would have been better,  but it is not yet available.

The dataset includes information on a random sample of roughly 4,800 households in Hawaii, including total housing costs, family size, and the income of each household member. Weights are provided with which we can scale to the 455,000 households in Hawaii (including 1,700 observations that we can scale to the 192,000 renter households).

Using UHERO forecasts for job totals through the rest of the year, we then randomly assign job losses over the weighted sample. Because we know what industry each household member works in, we are able to assign losses relative to industry impact. Based on our survey of local businesses and national estimates, we assume that 65% of job losses will be suffered by individuals earning below the median income in their industry.

Once job losses are randomly assigned based on these assumptions, we then estimate how housing burdens have changed and calculate the amount of funding needed to help the families who lost jobs return to their pre-COVID housing burdens. Because any random assignment may be aberrant, we repeat this process 100 times, taking the average of all simulations. In reality, we detected very little variance in our results for any of the 100 random draws. This, of course, does not imply that our estimates are accurate, only that they are fairly precise given our assumptions.

This process is not without meaningful sources of uncertainty. First of all, UHERO’s forecasts for the pace of recovery are, as described in the forecasts reports, based on several unknowable assumptions. Perhaps most significant are the degree to which the Federal government will approve additional stimulus and the rate at which Hawaii is able to safely open itself to tourism. More stimulus or a more rapid recovery of tourism will decrease the need. Another outbreak of COVID-19 here or on the mainland could increase it substantially.

Second, our assumption related to the distribution of job losses are based on approximations from other sources. There is no data we are aware of that breaks down unemployment claims by earnings at the industry level.

Third, our estimate only includes individuals whose income is impacted by job losses in the formal sector. Informal and self-employment losses will impact burdens as well, as would any decline in investment income.  While under the CARES Act, self-employed individuals may qualify for UI benefits, they are not included in payroll jobs data.

For those wishing to dig into our approach or model scenarios under different sets of assumptions, a link to our data and code is available on GitHub.


Our estimates are based on several policy scenarios. The first (Policy Scenario 1), represents the default if no additional funding from either the Federal or State Government is provided. We think this scenario is unlikely (happily) and thus estimate scenarios in which unemployed individuals receive $100, $200, or $300 additional weekly support.

Policy Scenario 1: FPUC expires and unemployment benefits drop to standard levels for Hawaii (roughly 60% of previous income). 

Number of households with increased burden44,000
Households with increased burden > 10%20,000
Households with increased burden > 30%7,500
Additional funding needed to return all families
to baseline rent burden for 6 months, August-January
$117 million
Additional support per affected family:$2,200

Policy Scenario 2: FPUC expires, but unemployed individuals receive $100 per week in unrestricted cash benefits (either through UI or another source).

Number of households with increased burden31,000
Households with increased burden > 10%10,000
Households with increased burden > 30%830
Additional funding needed to return all families
to baseline burden for 6 months)
(housing only, does not include cash benefit costs)
$65 million
Additional support per negatively affected family:
(those whose burdens increase despite additional cash benefit)

Policy Scenario 3: FPUC expires, but unemployed individuals receive $200 per week in unrestricted cash benefits (either through UI or another source).

Number of households with increased burden15,000
Households with increased burden > 10%2,700
Households with increased burden > 30%450
Additional funding needed to return all families
to baseline burden for 6 months
(housing only, does not include cash benefit costs)
$34 million
Additional support per negatively affected family:
(those whose burdens increase despite additional cash benefit)

Policy Scenario 4: FPUC expires, but unemployed individuals receive $300 per week in unrestricted cash benefits (either through UI or another source).

Number of households with increased burden8,300
Households with increased burden > 10%1,600
Households with increased burden > 30%250
Additional funding needed to return all families
to baseline burden for 6 months
(housing only, does not include cash benefit costs)
$22 million
Additional support per negative affected family:
(those whose burdens increase despite additional cash benefit)


Our analysis shows that we should expect significant disruption to the rental market after August 1st if nothing is done to support households suffering from COVID-induced job losses. Looking only at housing costs, the COVID Rent Deficit falls well above $100 million dollars. As noted above, this figure is probably conservative, as it only looks at the impact on renters working in the formal economy who are not self-employed. It does not take into account network poverty, meaning that renters who routinely relied on friends and family to cover rent, may struggle to do so when economic hardship is endemic. It also does not consider the needs of homeowners, who are currently more protected by Federal policy, but not entirely so.

We find that providing cash assistance lowers the needs for housing assistance but does not eliminate it, and a hybrid program that recognizes the value and efficiency of cash payments, while providing rent support to the most vulnerable, could be enormously valuable. 

The specific tradeoff between cash benefits and housing assistance is not entirely clear. Based on our estimates, roughly 44,000 renter households will be impacted by job loss through at least the end of the year. Given finite resources, miriad Federal restrictions, and implementation challenges, there is no easy answer to the dilemma of whether to use CARES funds to provide cash benefits, which families can target to their most substantial needs, or housing assistance, which can directly target the area of highest need and, potentially, bring landlords to the table to work out long-term sustainable solutions (which helps preserve the rental housing stock).

A full policy proposal dealing with the various implementation challenges and Federal restrictions has recently been released from the House Select Committee on COVID-19 Housing and Homelessness Subcommittee.


This analysis was conducted as part of our work with the House Select Committee on COVID-19 Housing and Homelessness Subcommittee, led by James Koshiba. We are enormously grateful to the insights of Committee members that informed this analysis. Kenna Stormogipson from Hawaii Budget and Policy Center provided detailed feedback and key assumption checking throughout.

5 thoughts on “Estimating the Need for Rental Assistance in Hawaii”

  1. Laura Thielen

    I haven’t ever seen this data for the different median household income for renters vs. homeowners. That’s a pretty stark difference. Is that from the ACS dataset? Does it include the median household size for renters vs. homeowners?

    1. Thanks Laura, sorry I didn’t see this comment earlier. That stat is from the American Community Survey. Owner occupant household size is slightly larger in HI (3.15 v. 2.84 persons per unit) so that’s part of the difference. Most of it simply who is able to buy and who isn’t.

      For comparison, the US as a whole has a somewhat smaller gap: US homeowner median income is $78,000, US renter is $40,000.

  2. Hopefully, the proposed stimulus bill will help cover the “Covid rent deficit.” Very good description of something that no one else is calculating. They could offer the minimum, which would help extend help into the fall, because lining up a food banks exposes people further to the virus. Landlords will have to take less, so we can all get through this awful period. The big problem of course is those irresponsible people who keep passing and contracting the virus and whether they’re doing it deliberately. The situation in Florida, nearing 4000 new cases per day will make aid calculations irrelevant. Hopefully, Hawaii can ease the transmissions and get the housing market and economy rolling again.

  3. Have you performed any studies or collected data to forecast the impacts of the pandemic on commercial real estate? Great info you have here.

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