Homelessness and high housing costs top the list of concerns of the four candidates running for the District 4 seat on the Honolulu City Council, perhaps the most competitive of four Council races this year.

The district includes Waikiki, a hotspot in the city’s efforts to combat homelessness, where police have issued hundreds of citations in recent months for such offenses as public drunkenness, sleeping in parks and panhandling in an effort to prod the homeless out of Oahu’s tourist mecca.

The district also contains some of the wealthiest neighborhoods on the island, including Kahala, where multi-million-dollar homes hug the shoreline, Aina Haina, known for its spectacular views of the coastline, and the tony enclaves of Black Point and Diamond Head. Also in the district are the more median-income areas of Kaimuki and Hawaii Kai.

District 4 is currently represented by Councilman Stanley Chang, who is running for the U.S. House. Vying to replace him are Carl Strouble, Natalie Iwasa, Tommy Waters and Trevor Ozawa.

Priced Out of the Market

Ozawa said Oahu’s cost of living and high housing prices, particularly in his district, are his top concerns. He’s particularly worried about the disruption that high rents and mortgages are having on communities and families. 

Trevor-Ozawa

Trevor Ozawa

His own family is a good “case study” he said. His three siblings have moved away; two are in California and one on the Big Island.

“Why? Jobs and housing,” he said. “They have no intention to return.”

In going door-to-door to drum up support for his campaign, Ozawa said  he often talks to people whose children and grandchildren have moved away, many to the mainland, in search of better economic conditions. 

He says he’d tackle the problem as a Council member by making sure developers include affordable housing in their construction projects. At the same time, he says he would work to not overburden developers with regulations so as to not slow down the construction of needed housing.

“I think we need to be as efficient as possible in getting buildings up once they are approved,” Ozawa said. 

Waters, the only candidate with experience as an elected official — he spent six years as a state representative — said affordable housing is a major issue for him as well.

Residents “on fixed incomes are afraid they are not going to be able to live in homes they have been in for decades,” he said.

Waters said he would work to give such homeowners adequate exemptions on their property taxes. Residents in certain areas of his district are finding themselves priced out as the value of properties that they bought years ago have soared, leaving them unable to afford the sharp rise in property taxes, he said.

Homeless Problem Looms Large

For Waters, as well as the other District 4 candidates, another major issue is the homelessness problem. 

It’s been a top priority of Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s administration, as well as the City Council, which recently approved approximately $47 million to house the homeless.

Tommy Waters

Tommy Waters

Not all of the tactics used to move homeless people out of areas such as Waikiki  — including confiscating their unattended belongings and forcing them out of parks at night — have been popular. 

The city has been enforcing a range of nuisance laws to encourage the homeless to move into shelters and seek services. 

Waters said that he supports the policy, but that more needs to be done to provide temporary housing for the homeless while longer-term solutions are sought.

“Once we remove someone from the sidewalk, park or beach, you have to have someplace to put them,” he said. 

Waters said tent cities or other types of short-term housing relegated to areas such as Kalaeloa, the site of a former Naval air station, could provide relief.

Iwasa, also known as the “Bike Mom” for her efforts to improve Oahu’s biking infrastructure, also said that the homeless problem is one of the district’s most pressing problems.

“I think it’s at a crisis point impacting the entire island in one way or another,” she said.

Natalie Iwasa

Natalie Iwasa

The accountant is a common presence at City Council meetings, where she tracks city budget negotiations and the numerous bills moving through the Council, including those related to homelessness. 

She supports the mayor’s Housing First policy, designed to move homeless individuals into small living units first to get them stabilized and then provide various resources such as substance abuse and mental health treatment. But she’s wary about some of the more aggressive tactics used in what Mayor Kirk Caldwell dubbed “Compassionate Disruption,” such as confiscating belongings left unattended.

“What is happening is that a lot of these people are losing their identification,” Iwasa said of the city’s confiscation activities. It costs $200 to get the belongings back, or they are thrown out after 30 days. 

Left without ID, homeless people are prevented from singing up for an array of social services, including health care, she said.

“I am just concerned about the way these laws have been implemented,” she said.

Iwasa suggests creating benchmarks for achieving housing for the homeless, so that the city can assess the progress along the way.

Strouble, who installs pool tables, video game machines and juke boxes for a living, is perhaps the outlier in the City Council race.

Carl Strouble

Carl Strouble

He is in favor of the Housing First initiative. But he’s firmly against “Compassionate Disruption,” which he says amounts to criminalizing homelessness.

“It’s going the same route as sweeping the (homeless problem) under the rug as opposed to fixing the problem,” he said. “Now, it is just in our face and we have to deal with it. I understand the reasoning why, I just don’t support it.”

Rather than spending tens of thousands of dollars on enforcing nuisance laws, he said the city should use the money to create housing for the homeless instead. 

He added that the city should work on some of the systemic causes of homelessness, such as easing housing costs.

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