Honolulu City Council member Carol Fukunaga wants to make sure that there is a mix of incomes among residents in three high-rise buildings in Chinatown that the city wants to sell to a private developer as part of a major public housing deal. 

Fukunaga proposed a sales stipulation during a City Council meeting on Wednesday, that drew fire from affordable housing advocates and members of Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s administration who said it could be interpreted in a way that would displace 309 low-income tenants from buildings that contain a total of 526 units.

It could also cost the city about $18 million to relocate the tenants, according to the administration.

Carol Fukunaga of the Honolulu City Council listens to public testimony at council meeting on June 4, 2014.

Honolulu Councilwoman Carol Fukunaga listens to public testimony on June 4, 2014.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

“You don’t want to be the council member that voted for the displacement of people,” Anthony Marlin, a housing advocate, told Fukunaga during the hearing. “You don’t want to be that council member.”

Fukunaga, who appeared flustered during the hearing as she responded to criticism, wants to change a 2008 City Council resolution that gives incentives to owners to rent out units in Marin Tower, Harbor Village and Chinatown Gateway Plaza to households that earn 60 percent or less of the average median income.

This translates to a maximum of $58,740 for a family of four and $41,160 for a single person. 

The councilwoman’s amendment, which was ultimately sent back to the Budget Committee for further discussion, would instead require that the three buildings contain a similar mix of incomes among residents as was mandated when they opened more than two decades ago.

The mixed-income buildings were originally established “as a way to try to revitalize downtown Chinatown and add to the mix of previously constructed low-income buildings,” Fukunaga said during the hearing. 

However, Ember Shinn, Honolulu’s managing director, told Fukunaga that there weren’t any units reserved for households earning 60 percent or less of the median income when the buildings first opened.

So the resolution suggests that 309 of the current residents would have to move once the buildings are sold.

Shinn said that federal relocation laws would require the city to cover future housing costs for the people who were displaced.

The sale of the three buildings is part of a larger effort to sell a total of 12 housing projects that cost the city about $7 million a year to maintain.

A deal to sell the properties for $140 million to Honolulu Affordable Housing Partners LLC fell through last year and the city is planning to reopen the bidding process.

Fukunaga’s amendment added to the discord last week during a Budget Committee meeting after she proposed more modest changes to the city resolution that would give incentives to developers to attract residents with a range of incomes to the units.

At the time, she said that it was important to the residents and businesses of downtown Honolulu to have a more affluent population mix. 

Her proposals, which other council members said were well-meaning but not fully thought-out, touched off a heated debate.

Shinn that she agreed that there were benefits to having residents with a range of incomes in a building.

But the demographics of Chinatown have changed over time, she said, and the residents in the buildings are an important part of the community. 

“These are working-class people. This is over 50 percent of our city workforce who earn less than 60 percent of the AMI,” she said as her voice rose with indignation.

“These are secretaries . . . everyday working people. These are the people that work in Chinatown, the secretaries and waitresses and the cashiers in Chinatown. They are the ones that purchase all the services and goods from the Chinatown community. This is not a bad thing.”

“So for you to say that we should have been doing something different I think is contrary to everything the City Council has stood for.”

The City Council passed the 2008 resolution to promote low-income housing and make sure that a sale of the properties, which has been planned for years, didn’t displace residents. 

Through attrition, the city prioritized residents earning 60 percent or less of the median income based on the council’s resolution, said Shinn. She also said that the buildings have naturally attracted this income level. 

But Fukunaga said that the community needed more of an opportunity to weigh in on the future composition of the buildings. 

“For the community this is going to be occurring in, I can tell you, people are going to be horrified when they realize this is in fact what the direction is going to be, without there being some opportunity for them to comment,” Fukunaga said. 

There was little debate among other council members during the hearing until Councilman Ron Menor finally spoke up. He suggested that the resolution — and the bill that accompanies it that allows the Caldwell administration to move forward with the sale — be sent back to the Budget Committee for further debate. 

Menor said that this is the last time he would support a deferral of the measures because the sale needs to move forward quickly to save the city money. 

Other council members agreed.

“I think we would all agree that (Fukunaga’s) heart is in the right place,” said Council Chair Martin.

But in the long run, he said, her resolution might be detrimental. 

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