When it comes to key policy issues facing the city of Honolulu, not a lot separates the two attorneys running for the District 4 Honolulu City Council race. 

Tommy Waters and Trevor Ozawa both think housing the homeless should be a top priority. They oppose hikes in property taxes, they want to bring down housing costs by building in Honolulu’s urban core and they want to tackle the island’s traffic gridlock.

Waters and Ozawa even share the “born and raised” in Hawaii status that gives local politicians that added cachet.  

Still, the candidates worked to carve out their differences — their experience and their approach to politics — at a Honolulu Board of Realtors’ candidate forum at Waialae Country Club on Thursday.

Moderated by Elise Lee, chair of the board’s city affairs committee, about 70 realtors attended from the east Honolulu district that includes Kahala, Aina Haina, Diamond Head, Kaimuki and Hawaii Kai. 

Trevor Ozawa and Tommy Waters

City Council candidates Trevor Ozawa, left, and Tommy Waters, right.

Courtesy of the candidates

A Question of Experience

The men are facing each other in a run-off election. Waters, a former legislator, had a healthy lead over Ozawa after the Aug. 9 primary, with 33 percent of the vote to Ozawa’s 26 percent in a four-way race. 

Since then, Ozawa has positioned himself as the political outsider, not beholden to powerful interests, in particular he’s distanced himself from many of the unions that are supporting Waters. 

“I don’t have any baggage that I’ll bring to the table. I don’t owe anyone anything,” said Ozawa, who added he “is not coming from a political machine.”

Waters has received endorsements from unions representing police, firefighters, plumbers, longshoremen and hotel workers. He’s also been endorsed by the Sierra Club and has the support of Mayor Kirk Caldwell. 

Ozawa has also worked to downplay the significance of Waters’ political experience. 

Waters served in the state House, representing Waimanalo and Lanikai from 2002 to 2008, and chaired the House Judiciary Committee. He decided not to seek re-election after the birth of his second child. 

But Ozawa portrayed this political experience as a liability. 

“I will bring a fresh perspective to the City Council and an independent style,” Ozawa told the audience. “And that is going to be very different than the former legislators that are either currently there or that are currently vying for a position.”

In the Legislature, lawmakers “play a lot of games” and engage in party politics, he said, and “these are the things that we don’t need at the City Council.”

Ozawa said his year working as a former legislative aide to Councilman Stanley Chang has better prepared him for the council, which deals more with the day to day issues facing constituents, such as bad roads and taxes.

By contrast, Waters has worked to paint Ozawa as young and inexperienced. 

During the forum’s opening statements, Waters was quick to point out that he’s 49. Later in the discussion, he slipped in the fact that Ozawa is 31. 

 “Just because I’m 31 doesn’t mean I can’t crack a whip,” Ozawa told attendees. 

In addition to his experience in the Legislature, Waters highlighted his work as a trial attorney, noting that he’s represented clients in more than 200 trials.

After the forum, Waters told Civil Beat that Ozawa’s attempts to portray him as a political insider were “a little overreaching.”  

“I think (Ozawa) is trying to say experience is a bad thing,” he said. “And really that is coming from someone who doesn’t have any experience.”

On the Issues

When it comes to specific issues facing the City Council, both Waters and Ozawa have a lot they agree on. Both of the candidates decry the island’s high home prices and lack of affordable housing. They support growth in Honolulu’s urban core and along the Honolulu rail line as way to increase the housing supply and drive down prices.

Ozawa stressed that new housing needs to be developed in a way that serves local residents. 

Waters said that while he encouraged development, it was also important to retain open spaces. “We can’t just line the place with building after building after building,” he said. 

Both candidates also said they oppose a controversial hike in property taxes for non-occupant owners of homes valued at $1 million or more, known as Residential A properties. This year, the City Council boosted the tax rate by 71 percent to $6 per $1,000 of assessed property value. 

The tax hike, initially proposed by Caldwell, aims to increase city revenue by taxing investment properties. 

The measure was opposed by the Honolulu Board of Realtors. 

“I definitely oppose Residential A and I will work to get it repealed,” said Ozawa. “I always, always oppose real property tax increases.”

Waters said that it’s better to increase city revenue by building more homes, not hiking property taxes.

However, raising taxes on such properties can dissuade mainland and international property investment in Hawaii, as well as discourage people from buying second and third homes, thus potentially driving down housing prices in Hawaii and increasing the housing stock for locals.

Nearly one in 11 rentals in Hawaii is empty, in part because owners are sitting on their investment properties or they are being illegally rented out as vacation rentals, according to economists. 

Asked how opposing such taxes squares with his focus on increasing affordable housing, Waters told Civil Beat after the forum that the tax hike had the opposite effect in District 4. 

Most homes in East Honolulu are valued at $1 million or more and the tax hikes on non-owner-occupied homes are passed down to renters, he said. 

Indeed, median price listings for homes in much of the district approach or top $1 million, according to Trulia, a real estate guide. 

Ozawa told Civil Beat that the intent of the legislation was good, but that it was hurting the wrong people and could force older residents, whose property values have increased over time, out of their homes. 

“In theory it may have been good,” he said. “But in practice, it’s not good for this district.”

Both Ozawa and Waters also said they would oppose efforts to raise city revenue by charging residents a trash pick-up fee, a Caldwell proposal that died at the City Council this year. 

However, Waters said he would support another revenue enhancer proposed by the Caldwell administration — placing advertisements on the sides of buses. “It could raise almost $8 million in revenue and it’s not going to cost you anything,” he said. 

On the issue of homelessness, both Ozawa and Waters said they support the Housing First model, which places chronically homeless into long-term housing without requiring them to undergo treatment for substance abuse and mental illness first.

However, Ozawa said that the city needs to make sure that the cost of housing the homeless doesn’t grow out of control. 

Local homeless experts say housing the homeless is ultimately cheaper than leaving them on the street, where taxpayers end up covering their emergency room visits and medical treatments, as well as related law enforcement and outreach services.

Waters said that the city needs to have short-term and long-term plans for dealing with the city’s homeless. He said he supported the mayor’s plan to have a temporary campsite for sheltering homeless while permanent housing is being developed, but he wouldn’t put it on Sand Island, as the mayor has proposed.

Rather, he would site it at Kalaeloa, the site of a former Naval air station near Kapolei. He suggested using Matson containers as shelter and solar electricity to power the site. 

Waters also warned that not all homeless people want assistance. 

“There are certain people that just don’t want the help and they have to be treated differently,” he said. 

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