Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell plans to create a temporary office to manage city properties, acquire housing for the homeless and advance his affordable housing strategy at a cost of about $500,000 a year, the city’s managing director says.

In a letter sent to the Honolulu City Council last month, Ember Shinn said the Strategic Development Office would be staffed by eight new employees with various expertise in property management and development. It would be attached to the Department of Community Services.

Money for the positions isn’t included in this year’s budget, but the Caldwell administration intends to tap funds from a provisional account for vacancies, the city’s Affordable Housing Fund, salary savings and federal homeless funds, according to Shinn’s letter.

Marin Tower affordable housing (NO TYPE)

Marin Tower is one of the city’s affordable housing properties.

PF Benley/Civil Beat

The mayor’s office didn’t respond to Civil Beat’s requests for interviews with Shinn and Gary Nakata, the Department of Community Services’ acting director. Jun Yang, the city’s executive director of the Office of Housing, didn’t return a call for comment.

The cost of the positions for the remainder of the 2015 fiscal year, beginning in October, is $415,000 to $425,000, according to Shinn’s letter. The cost for the 2016 fiscal year, by extension, would be about $550,000. 

The administration says the extra staff is necessary due to “unforeseen or emergency circumstances,” which allows the city to hire temporary staff without City Council approval. 

“This is a temporary need to immediately address the city’s issue of chronic homelessness, to implement the asset development component of the Housing First program and Affordable Housing Policy and Plan, to redirect the uses of for the city’s (public housing) portfolio, and to respond to council’s numerous resolutions and directives about developing city assets,” Shinn writes. 

Councilwoman Ann Kobayashi, who chairs the Honolulu City Council’s Budget Committee, was skeptical of the rationale for the money, however. 

“There is some money available, but we have to have a reason,” she said.

Kobayashi said that the administration needs to provide the council with separate justifications and details of each new temporary position, otherwise the City Council can contest the appropriation. 

Kobayashi sent a letter to Shinn this week asking for “the cost of the position; the source of budgetary savings, described by source of funds, activity, and character of expenditure, which will be used to finance the position; and the unforeseen or emergency circumstance justifying the need for the position.”

Caldwell has embarked on ambitious efforts to find housing for the city’s homeless population and increase the affordable housing supply. But administration officials have said in recent months that efforts are being hamstrung by a lack of staff. In 1996, the city disbanded its housing department, which was staffed by about 100 employees.

Creation of the Strategic Development Office appears to be an effort to help compensate for that loss. 

The office would consolidate all of the city’s properties, which are currently scattered throughout four departments into one entity “in order to create a master plan for city assets,” according to Shinn’s letter. 

Staff would also help administer $32 million in general obligation bonds to acquire housing for the homeless and develop properties for Caldwell’s affordable housing strategy

The city is also now considering holding on to all or a portion of 12 public housing projects that it sought to sell last year. The properties are costing the city about $7 million annually to maintain. The office would create a plan for the properties, which could include leasing out buildings long-term, developing commercial spaces and rehabilitating some of the residential properties for low-income housing, Shinn told Civil Beat by email.

The city is also looking to develop public-private partnerships to develop city assets, including River Street, Varona Village, Aiea Sugar Mill, Kapolei, transit-oriented development projects, agriculture parcels, Kalaheo Hillside and commercial zoned parcels, according to Shinn’s letter. 

The new staff is expected to be on board through June 2016. The Caldwell administration didn’t respond to a question from Civil Beat about whether the office may eventually be made permanent given the scope of the work. 

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