The Maui Planning Commission granted an amendment Monday to formally allow the general public to rent units at the Kulanaa'o Apartments in Kahului.
The complex owned by Lono Street Properties LLC was specifically for students at the University of Hawaii Maui College, but because of the low demand and occupancy, the company has rented to nonstudents since the housing complex opened in 2008.
In a letter presented to the commission and addressed to county Planning Director William Spence, company officials sought to amend their original special management area use permit to allow tenants who are not students.
The Kulanaa‘o Apartments, originally for University of Hawaii Maui College students only, was formally approved Monday to allow nonstudents to rent at the complex. Opening in 2008, the 3.1-acre site can house 407 students but has never had more than 100.
The Maui News / CHRIS SUGIDONO photo
"Due to the financial hardship of being created by the student-only restriction in the SMA application, the subject apartment building currently operates at a substantial loss," the letter said.
Although the original permit did not restrict the company from renting to nonstudents, the request was made to clarify the situation for the college and prospective tenants, Spence said. The amendment provides for students to get priority treatment for housing at the Kulanaa'o complex.
"There will continue to be a memorandum of understanding with the university and that preference will be given to university students," he said. "Basically there just aren't enough students to fill the units so you have buildings sitting almost empty."
Located on Vevau Street and across from Kahului Library, the 3.1-acre site has 100 two-bedroom units, three one-bedroom units and four studios. All units have a full kitchen and living room with utilities included in the rent.
Despite the assortment of amenities, though, the complex with enough space for 407 students has never attracted more than 100, and had only 29 at the start of the 2012-13 school year.
"Part of the reality is the median age here (at UH-MC) is 28," said Brian Moto, special assistant to Chancellor Clyde Sakamoto. "That tells you a substantial number of students are basically adults who have families or full-time jobs, and we also have many commuters or students that already have housing.
"It's not your typical college campus where you have large numbers of 18- to 19-year-old freshmen."
Additionally, the college of about 4,500 undergraduates does not require first-year students to live in the complex like many four-year institutions on the Mainland do, he said.
"The reality is that the apartment tends to have more families," he said. "It's not your traditional dorm."
Danielle Kanekoa, community manager of the property, said that the four-building complex is about three-quarters full with mostly families and other tenants, and that the number of students varies every school year.
"We have more available space than the current need for the college," she said. "But we are making every effort to attract students, and we're doing our best all the way around to be flexible and available."
In the letter to the commission, company officials explained how they reduced their bed rates for a period, going from $485 to $335 - the lowest for any student housing in the state - and saw no increase in student occupancy. The California-based landowners also hired students to market the property and advertised on the island using websites, fliers and other media.
"We have exhausted all efforts to attract students to our property to achieve 100 percent student occupancy," the letter said.
With the formal move to open housing, the company also was approved to remodel 79 of the two-bedroom units, adding a shower stall to the units' 1 bathrooms. The remodel also includes a revision of interior walls and doors so that each bedroom can have its own bathroom.
The total cost of the improvements is estimated at $434,500.
"There will always be beds available for students, including for those that are short-term and seasonal," said Candace Thackerson, who oversaw the amendment as staff planner with the Department of Planning. "The company, though, is trying to look less like a dorm and more like apartments, which makes it a little nicer for the public. We're really pushing them to renovate and improve the inside to make it less like a dorm, but we would like the rates to stay the same because we definitely need more affordable housing."
Rates for the trio of units differ from bed pricing with two-bedrooms at $1,350 per month, one-bedrooms at $950, and studios at $795. All tenants are required to obey quiet hours and the only lease agreements available are for semesters or academic years (August to May).
Factoring in the price and luxuries such as a study room, open-air lounge and laundry room, the college still relies on the complex for student housing during summer programs like the federally funded Upward Bound program.
The free, nationwide educational program provides college experience to high school students whose parents did not earn a four-year degree and/or come from a low-income family. The college sponsored the program and will house several of the students from Baldwin, Maui and Molokai high schools at the complex.
Another summer program underway at the college is the Indigenous Knowledge in Engineering program. The six-campus collaboration helps UH students pursue a career in engineering, and students throughout the state are given priority housing at the complex for UH-Maui College's program offering.
"It's nice," student Evan Akuna said of the Kahului housing. "I think it might actually be better than the dorms at Manoa. There's a lot of space."
The 20-year-old UH-Manoa student shares a two-bedroom unit with 19-year-old William Kaeo III, who studies at Kapiolani Community College. Both are enrolled in the summer program.
The Oahu residents said property officials had told them many of the tenants consisted of families and other nonstudents, but it did not affect their decision. After spending about three weeks in the complex, Akuna has noticed that it is much different than his dormitory on Oahu.
"I'd say that if you're looking for a tradition college experience you should go to UH-Manoa," he said. "This seems like a place that's more for real world living."
* Chris Sugidono can be reached at csugidono@ mauinews.com.