Construction of the Honolulu rail system is expected to spark a development boom along the transit corridor running from East Kapolei to Ala Moana Center and a key element in the city’s emerging transit-oriented development plans is supposed to be affordable housing.

But controversy has emerged around whether the first major plan for TOD along the rail line will result in as much affordable housing as residents expect.

The Honolulu City Council approved a zoning change last week that allows Robertson Properties Group to move forward on plans to build up to 1,500 residential units in five high rises. Dubbed, “Live, Work, Play Aiea,” the development is slated to be built next to the planned Pearlridge Transit Station.

But Honolulu City Councilman Ron Menor says that the community mistakenly thinks that much, if not all, of the housing will be affordable to middle-class residents.

He noted an informal Honolulu Star-Advertiser poll earlier this month in which 51 percent of voters supported the “1,500-unit affordable housing project” at the former Kam Drive-In site because such “housing was needed.”

“At the end of the day, there will be much fewer affordable residential units on site than what residents expected,” he told Civil Beat after the hearing.

At most, there will be 450 affordable units, but he said that a “close reading of the development agreement” suggests that there may be far fewer.

The City Council unanimously approved the zoning change, which allows the towers to exceed height limits, but some members were critical of the agreement between the developer and the city that includes affordable housing requirements.

Council Chair Ernie Martin voted against the agreement, stating that it contains too many “loopholes” that benefit the developer rather than the local community. Five other members of the nine-member council also expressed reservations, even as they approved the resolution, which has gone to Mayor Kirk Caldwell for consideration.

Jesse Broder Van Dyke, a spokesman for the mayor, didn’t return a call asking whether Caldwell plans to approve the agreement.

Caldwell’s housing office and the city’s Department of Planning and Permitting are currently developing an Affordable Housing Strategy for transit-oriented development.

The plan “will prioritize city resources in the construction and maintenance of affordable housing,” according to a city press statement released Thursday — a day after the City Council issued approvals for the Aiea development.

The strategy is intended to help revise land use regulations, financial policies and affordable housing programs.

Affordable Aiea?

John Manavian, an executive vice president at Robertson Properties, told Civil Beat that the affordable housing requirements in the development agreement are more stringent than what the city’s Department of Planning and Permitting usually requires.

Currently, city policy requires that 30 percent of new housing units be affordable to households that earn between 80 percent and 140 percent of the median income.

Robertson Properties, which is based in Los Angeles, has agreed to go beyond those requirements, building more units for lower-income households earning less than 80 percent of the median income. The company has also agreed to keep the units in the affordable housing pool for a longer period of time.

But Menor says that the net result of the agreement is that there will be a lot less affordable housing in the Aiea towers.

Residents won’t be getting 1,500 units of affordable housing in the towers, said Menor, and they likely won’t be getting the standard 30 percent either.

The developer is allowed to locate as much as half of that 30 percent off-site if it builds additional units that go below the standard affordable housing threshold for families — as long as the housing falls near any of the proposed rail stations.

According to the development agreement:

  • Up to 35 percent of the total affordable housing can be built on land within a half mile of any of the rail stations if the rentals are for households with incomes not exceeding 80 percent of the median income. The units must remain affordable for 20 years.

  • Or up to 50 percent of the affordable housing can be built within a half mile of the Pearlridge Transit Station as long as the units are rentals for households with incomes below 80 percent of the median income. Those rentals must remain affordable for 60 years.

Menor says that this means much of the affordable housing could be built as far away as Kakaako, likely disappointing Aiea residents who support the project because they want more affordable housing in their neighborhood.

The developer also isn’t required to only build residential housing in the towers. Robertson Properties can also develop retail and commercial space.

This means that there is not actually a requirement that they build 1,500 residential spots, so the affordable housing total could be 30 percent of a smaller number of units.

Still, Manavian said that most of the units will likely be residential because that is what the market supports.

And while not all of the affordable housing has to be built in the “Live, Work, Play Aiea” development, he noted that it must be built near the rail line, in compliance with city transit goals.

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