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Voters have two very different options in the race for the District 6 Honolulu City Council seat, which covers much of Oahu’s urban core, including downtown Honolulu and its surrounding neighborhoods.
It’s Democrat versus Republican, albeit for a nonpartisan office. It’s an incumbent who touts her insider political acumen against a challenger who casts himself as a political outsider.
The differences were on display at the Hawaii Convention Center on Friday morning during a forum featuring incumbent Councilwoman Carol Fukunaga and challenger Sam Aiona. They took turns discussing their views on affordable housing, taxes, homelessness and traffic at the event hosted by the Honolulu Board of Realtors.
Fukunaga is a veteran politician who served two decades in the Hawaii Senate as a Democrat before narrowly beating Aiona in a 2012 special election to replace Tulsi Gabbard, who was elected to Congress.
Fukunaga displays a notable familiarity with the ins and outs of government, speaking authoritatively on issues such as taxes, state and city revenues and housing issues.
Aiona is a past chair of the Hawaii Republican Party and served in the House of Representatives from 1996 to 1998. But much of his experience comes from the private sector, where he worked as a loan officer for a mortgage company for five years and is the owner of Kettle Corn Popcorn on Sand Island.
He’s touted that business experience in an effort to tap into what he sees as voter disillusionment with politics, positioning himself as the private sector candidate who will cut through government bureaucracy and inertia to get things done on the City Council.
“We are just not doing enough in government and we got to start taking action now,” Aiona told the audience of several dozen local Realtors.
Criticizing elected officials for too much talk and not enough action, he said he would make sure that roads get repaved in the district, streamline solutions to the homeless problem and work to see that affordable housing actually gets built.
“I consider myself an advocate and fighter for the people,” he said.
Aiona’s aggressive, take-charge style contrasts with that of Fukunaga, who takes a more conciliatory approach that stresses collaboration.
While Aiona declared at one point in the forum that “government is not the solution, it is always the problem,” Fukunaga emphasized the importance of cooperation between government agencies, the private sector and nonprofits. She also emphasized government’s successes.
“I think in the next year and a half, you are going to see remarkable things happen if we can demonstrate our commitment to working with organizations as well as community groups to solve homelessness, to address the need for resources and to build stronger communities,” she said.
The Board of Realtors forum wasn’t designed as a debate. Rather, the candidates took turns discussing their views on key issues facing the city that were selected by Jack Legal, president-elect of the Honolulu Board of Realtors and moderator of the forum.
Both stressed the need for more affordable housing and their support for building in the urban core and along the rail line.
Aiona took a swipe at multi-million-dollar condos being built in Kakaako instead of affordable units, calling it a “travesty.”
Fukunaga stressed the need to develop mixed-income buildings, as opposed to low-income units only, within Honolulu’s urban core. “We think that will stimulate a lot more private sector investment,” she said.
It’s a position she has fought for at the City Council, arguing that low-income buildings in Chinatown need to have a greater mix of middle-income residents.
On homelessness, Aiona criticized the recent $47 million appropriation by the City Council to tackle the issue — much of the funding is designated for building or renovating units for the homeless as part of the city’s much-touted “Housing First” strategy.
“You put a person who is homeless into a $110,000 unit, they will never leave. They can’t,” he said, stressing the need to develop more affordable housing solutions, as opposed to public housing.
He said the city should provide greater funding to nonprofits instead, and let them take the lead on tackling homelessness.
“Nonprofits are the ones that can solve homelessness, not government,” he said.
Aiona stressed his eight years of experience as executive director of the state’s Office of Community Services as giving him particular insights into the limits of government efforts.
Fukunaga defended the city’s focus on Housing First, a philosophy that focuses on getting the most chronically homeless, many of whom suffer from drug and alcohol dependency and mental illness, into housing first and then proving them with supportive services. Many of the homeless suffering from such conditions are shut out of shelters that enforce strict rules.
She noted that Housing First is considered a best practice by federal housing authorities.
Fukunaga said that both city and state agencies, nonprofits and private industry need to work together to tackle homelessness as she pointed out the challenges.
“Housing First relies upon having a large inventory of affordable housing,” she said. “In Honolulu that’s hard to come by.”
Fukunaga highlighted recent efforts by the city to come up with housing solutions, including plans to convert Pauahi Hale, a public housing complex in Chinatown, into units that primarily serve the homeless suffering from mental health issues. Mental Health Kokua, which will manage the program, has credited Fukunaga as being instrumental in facilitating the deal.
Legal brought up the recent hike in property taxes for non-occupant owners of homes valued at $1 million or more, known as Residential A properties. The City Council raised the tax rate by 71 percent to $6 per $1,000 of assessed property value.
The tax increase, initially proposed by Caldwell, aims to boost city revenue by taxing investment properties. However, a number of property owners who live in their homes complained that they didn’t know that they had to apply for an exemption to avoid the tax increase and missed the deadline.
The Board of Realtors opposed the tax hike.
Fukunaga said that she supported the Residential A tax increase, but noted that it was not intended to hurt long-time residents who lived in their homes. She stressed that the City Council was working to mitigate the unintended consequences of the measure.
Aiona used the controversy over the tax hike to take a swipe at politics as usual.
“We always put the cart before the horse,” he said. “No one was there to ask the tough questions. The council just proceeded to pass it without realizing the consequences. And now we have to go back and fix it.”