State Sen. Suzanne Chun Oakland wants to boost Hawaii’s affordable housing stock by convincing the Legislature to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to subsidize rentals for low-income Hawaii residents.

Sen. David Ige, who leads the Senate’s budget committee, says there’s not a chance that her bill will receive that level of funding.

But Chun Oakland is still pushing the ambitious proposal, reflecting her efforts over two decades to make housing for the poor into a legislative priority.

For Chun Oakland, Hawaii’s affordable housing shortage is about a lot more than just not having enough homes.

“By having a place to call your home, you can alleviate a whole lot of other social problems,” said Chun Oakland, who has spent more than 20 years working on social service-related issues in the Legislature.

Last year she convinced Senate leadership to add “affordable housing” to the list of topics related to families that are her kuleana (responsibility) as chairwoman of the Senate Human Services Committee.

After the legislative session ended last May, she convened an informal task force to figure out the most effective ways to address the lack of low-income housing in the state.

Her omnibus bill, Senate Bill 2533 is scheduled for consideration by three Senate committees on Tuesday afternoon.

Among other things, the measure would inject more than $220 million, including at least $100 million into both the state’s Rental Housing Trust Fund and the Dwelling Unit Revolving Fund. The senator also introduced a slew of other related bills in case the omnibus proposal doesn’t make it.

For developers like Kevin Carney of the nonprofit EAH Housing, a measure like Chun Oakland’s could provide much-needed financing to build homes for the poor.

“The Rental Housing Trust Fund is a resource that we depend on a lot,” he said. “It’s a very critical part of the puzzle for doing an affordable rental housing deal.”

The Root of Homelessness?

Chun Oakland hasn’t always considered affordable housing to be a priority, but says she became convinced of its importance after spending years trying to tackle homelessness.

“We have to do something more,” she said.“We can’t just be having services for homeless people because we don’t have the housing stock.” She added that about 40 percent of Hawaii’s homeless population is made up of working people who can’t afford the state’s high cost of housing.

The Holomua at 1315 Kalakaua, an example of affordable housing financed partially with the state’s Rental Housing Trust Fund. (PF Bentley/Civil Beat)

According to the 2011 Hawaii Housing Planning Study, the state needs 50,000 housing units to meet the population’s demand by 2016. About 19,000 units would need to be affordable to families that earn less than 80 percent of the area median income, which is $82,600 for a family of four.

Although that study is fairly recent, the lack of housing for low-income people is something advocates have been trying to respond to for years.

In the early 1990s, the senator helped organize a statewide housing summit that brought together relevant officials and activists on the issue. She also helped establish the Rental Housing Trust Fund, which in 2006 was funded with 50 percent of the revenue from the state’s conveyance tax.

But since then, Hawaii’s economy experienced a recession and the initiative got bumped from the Legislature’s priorities. The Legislature cut the percentage of revenue from the conveyance tax that goes into the fund to 25 percent in 2009.

Despite the general economic recovery, the fund receives just 30 percent of conveyance tax revenue. Another bill that will be considered this year would boost that percentage back up to 50 percent.

Chun Oakland said the total in the fund has shrunk to such an extent that applications from developers who want to build affordable housing have been rejected because there aren’t enough state subsidies.

Jenny Lee, from the Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice, says that without help from the state, it’s unlikely that housing for low-income people will be built because it isn’t as profitable for developers as higher-end homes.

Chun Oakland is so concerned about the state’s housing deficit that she meticulously keeps track of any new development that might add to the state’s housing stock. On a large pad of paper in her office at the State Capitol, her chart shows that the state still has a long way to go.

What Else Can Be Done?

The need for more housing in Hawaii hasn’t escaped other lawmakers, especially those at the Honolulu City Council who are faced with the question of affordability every time they approve a new development.

The City Council is considering two resolutions on Thursday to revamp its affordable housing strategy.

Resolution 14-28 would implement recommendations from a 2006 report by a mayoral advisory committee and a 2007 report by the city auditor on the issue.

Resolution 13-168 would increase the percentage of homes developers build that have to be affordable to low-income families.

Sen. Suzanne Chun Oakland keeps track of new developments with a chart in her office. (PF Bentley/Civil Beat)

But despite concern about the issue, the question remains about what — if anything — will actually be done.

“I’m certain they won’t be funded to that level,” said Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairman Ige when asked about Chun Oakland’s omnibus bill. “We just don’t have that much funds available.”

Gov. Neil Abercrombie announced in his State of the State speech last month that Hawaii ended fiscal year 2013 with an $844 million surplus.

But there are a lot of requests for that money to go to things like early childhood education, kupuna services and state land deals, and it’s unlikely that much of it will be left over to fund housing initiatives.

There is also a question of the effectiveness of the state funding itself. Chun Oakland noted that with $100 million the Rental Housing Trust Fund could subsidize just 600 affordable housing units a year.

“That’s a far cry from the 13,000 we need for [affordable] rental units by 2016,” the senator acknowledged. “But it’s much more significant than [the current level of] 200 units a year.”

Knowing that it’s unlikely that her bill will get the funding level she seeks, Chun Oakland is asking some of her fellow lawmakers to donate some of the funding they receive for capital improvement projects in their districts to the Rental Housing Trust Fund.

“It doesn’t hurt to ask,” she said.

Contact Anita Hofschneider on Twitter at @ahofschneider.

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