When Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell announced his preliminary affordable housing strategy last September, housing advocates praised it as aggressive, even revolutionary.

Nine months later, little has changed.

Harrison Rue, who is leading the city’s efforts to revitalize development around rail, said the administration is still in the process of improving the strategy and he expects a revised plan to be published in July or August.

Meanwhile, there’s been no movement at the City Council on Caldwell’s most significant proposal, which would require every large new development to set aside a certain percentage of units for low- or moderate-income residents, a policy known as inclusionary zoning.

Faith Action for Community Equity (F.A.C.E.) displays a house with two rooms with two bunk beds made using a shipping container parked on the mauka side of Honolulu Hale. 3 feb 2015. photograph Cory Lum

The nonprofit Faith Action for Community Equity (F.A.C.E.) displays a house with two rooms with two bunk beds inside a rebuilt shipping container parked on the mauka side of Honolulu Hale.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

That would be a huge departure from the existing policy that applies just to developers seeking zone changes and only produced 68 units in fiscal year 2014. The mayor’s preliminary housing strategy also emphasized requiring developers to provide cheaper rental units that remain affordable for up to 60 years, rather than just 10 years.

The delay has real consequences. Last month, the council approved a 11,750-home development by D.R. Horton called Hoopili. If Caldwell’s proposed inclusionary zoning rules had been in effect, the development could have been required to provide more rental housing or ensure that its affordable housing would remain that way for 30-60 years.

A 2014 state study estimated that over 11,000 rental units are needed on Oahu by low- and moderate-income households by 2020.

“We’re never happy when it takes a lot of time to work through the policies. We also want to come up with policies and ways to administer them that will work and that will stick.” — Harrison Rue, city community building and transit-oriented development administrator

The aspect of the mayor’s housing strategy that’s gained the most momentum so far is a proposal to increase the supply of rental housing by allowing homeowners to build and rent attached units, called accessory dwelling units. Currently homeowners are only allowed to rent such units to their family members, and loosening that regulation is expected to create 250 more units per year.

But two bills that would make it happen are only about halfway through the City Council process. They still need another hearing by the Zoning and Planning Committee as well as final approval from the full council.

Rue said Friday that the housing strategy is still a top priority for the Caldwell administration, which has spent the last few months talking to stakeholders and working on improving the plan.

“A lot of these are significant policy changes, they require a lot of technical analysis to back them up,” he said. “We’re never happy when it takes a lot of time to work through the policies. We also want to come up with policies and ways to administer them that will work and that will stick.”

Affordable for How Long?

The city has enlisted the help of the mainland consulting firm Keyser Marston Associates to analyze the inclusionary zoning rules.

Rue said altering the rules is time-consuming because it involves both stakeholder input and technical analysis. He said the city is still committed to requiring every large development to set aside a certain amount of income-specific housing, with an emphasis on rental housing for low-income residents.

But the percentage of units that developers would need to set aside is still in flux, as well as how long they must remain affordable.

Rue said the city is now leaning toward requiring rentals to remain affordable for 30 years. That’s higher than the current 10-year requirement but lower than the 60 years proposed last fall.

Kirk Caldwell _ State of the City/2014_Housing First (PF)

Mayor Kirk Caldwell listed housing and homelessness among his top priorities in his 2014 State of the State address.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

The city is also working on changing zoning around rail stations, and is planning to submit draft land use ordinance and zoning changes for the Waipahu TOD district this summer.

Rue said the city has also hired a consultant to help figure out how the city could help developers build more housing by broadening financing options.

Another effort would change the county charter to loosen restrictions on an underutilized housing fund where millions of dollars sit untouched. Rue said the city wants to make the fund applicable to developments serving people earning 60 percent of area median income or below and remain affordable for 60 years, rather than the current rule that they remain affordable in perpetuity.

Sixty years may sound like a long time, but the possible change sounds like bad news to Chuck Wathen, an affordable housing advocate who says the eventual turnover of publicly financed rentals into market-rate condos means it doesn’t make sense for the city to subsidize rentals that are only affordable for a set period of time.

“The city can’t keep replacing affordable units. It just can’t do it,” Wathen said. “As the population increases the number of affordable units you have will mathematically keep decreasing.”

‘We Can’t Keep Hiring People’

While policy changes have lagged, Caldwell has made good on his promise to create a new Office of Strategic Development. Since it was formed in December, the agency’s three staff members have been working on housing the homeless, creating senior housing on River Street and establishing container housing in Waianae.

The agency is also working on a plan for temporary container housing and services for the homeless at Sand Island, and plans to announce the details Tuesday.

But the future of the office is uncertain given lukewarm support from the City Council. Councilwoman Ann Kobayashi, who leads the Budget and Finance Committee, slashed the mayor’s budget to remove funding for seven staff members. The administration is currently paying for three staff members but wants specific funding set aside to cover their salaries and four more.

Kobayashi said she doesn’t understand why the mayor needs the extra staff and why he can’t continue to fund the positions through his existing budget.

“We have nothing against that office, it’s just that it’s hard to understand why there’s so much importance given to them,” she said, noting that she thinks the existing city staff is capable. “We have to use the resources we have, we can’t keep hiring people at high salaries.”

Rendering Senior Housing River Street

A rendering of proposed senior housing on River Street.

Courtesy of the City & County of Honolulu

A city spokesman said that Sandra Pfund, who leads the Office of Strategic Development, was not available to comment.

But housing advocates like the Rev. Bob Nakata from the nonprofit Faith Action for Community Equity say that the lack of staffing means that it will be tough to ensure that the $32 million set aside to help house homeless people this year will be properly spent.

“It’s a big step forward to appropriate the money but it’s not helpful that it’s difficult for the administration to actually use those funds,” he said.

The council meets Wednesday to vote on the budget for the next fiscal year beginning July 1. Councilman Brandon Elefante from Central Oahu, who agrees with Nakata, plans to introduce an amendment to put back $616,488 to fund seven positions for the agency.

But that’s not the only issue with the Office of Strategic Development. Some are questioning its decision to issue a request-for-proposal to develop three container/modular homes in Waianae.

The agency is also working on a plan for temporary container housing and services for the homeless at Sand Island, and plans to announce the details Tuesday.

State Rep. Jo Jordan, who represents the district, said she is concerned about whether the lot is too small for three 500-square-foot homes.

“I’m not saying we don’t want it, because we need this housing across the state,” Jordan said. “I just don’t know if that property with three little units squashed on it will create great success.”

Some advocates wonder whether Waianae is the best area for low-income housing given the distance from jobs and the planned rail line.

“I would hope for more inventory to come in town because it’s easier to get to places of employment,” said Scott Morishige from the nonprofit organization PHOCUSED, noting that it can take two hours to drive from Waianae to downtown Honolulu during rush hour, and even longer by bus.

“If we continue to build affordable housing primarily on the leeward side, you’re not addressing the transportation issue. You’re adding to the barriers those families face,” he said.

City spokesman Jesse Broder Van Dyke said in an email that the Waianae location follows the city’s scattered site approach, which involves providing “housing at locations where homeless people already live, rather than expecting people to relocate for housing.”

Lackluster Legislative Effort

While housing policy lags, the City Council has been moving forward on efforts to ban homeless people from sitting and lying on sidewalks, part of another mayoral strategy known as “compassionate disruption.”

Some think that the desire to get homeless people out of sight has taken precedence over producing housing.

Jenny Lee, an attorney at the Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice, thinks sit-lie bans, while ineffective, are an easier sell politically. “It doesn’t make you look very cool or clever to say, ‘I support funding for the Office of Strategic Development,’ and it’s hard to get the political will for that.”

Elefante, who has consistently voted against the sit-lie bills, said the city should stay focused on providing housing.

“I think we do need to refocus and gear our attention to some of the affordable housing issues,” he said, adding that he’s looking forward to seeing the mayor’s finalized strategy.

Kapalama Canal

Homeless residents’ tents line the muddy bank of Kapalama Canal between King Street and Killingham Boulevard.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Despite the slow progress, advocates hope the city will follow through with an aggressive housing policy, especially given the lackluster commitment from the Legislature this year.

State lawmakers set aside less than half of the money Gov. David Ige requested to build affordable rental housing, and even capped how much money the rental housing fund receives from the state conveyance tax.

Wathen, who leads the Hawaii Housing Alliance, said the Legislature has been a “continual disappointment” over the last 20 years, but he has more faith in city officials.

“There are some strong advocates with a lot of desire to do something,” he said.

Morishige from PHOCUSED is even more optimistic.

“It’s clear that it was going to take some time to build the political will for (the housing strategy),” he said. “I think the most important thing is that change is underway.”

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