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The Maui County Council is set to vote Friday on a housing ordinance that would drastically reduce how much affordable housing developers are required to build on the islands of Maui, Molokai and Lanai.
For David DeLeon, the change is a long time coming. The lobbyist for the Maui Realtors Association has been trying to get the council to amend the ordinance since it was passed in 2006. It was backed by Maui County Councilman Danny Mateo, who chaired the council for four terms and guarded the ordinance until his term expired two years ago.
Since Mateo left, DeLeon has been lobbying council members every month regarding the bill because, he contends, “It hasn’t worked.”
Only a handful of homes have been built under the ordinance, which was supposed to provide much-needed housing for Maui County’s working families. Eight years after it passed, even proponents concede that it should be revised. Mateo, now the county clerk, said the policy “was never made to be concrete.”
But some members of the community group Faith Action for Community Equity are concerned that the revisions go too far.
The organization is so disenchanted that its representative, Kim Harman, withdrew from a task force that was set up to make recommendations on the bill.
Harman said FACE’s board wondered if it had been a mistake to join because it seemed the group wasn’t open to its ideas.
“Maybe we were naive,” Harman said.
Maui County’s current workforce housing ordinance requires 50 percent of residential developments to be set aside for affordable housing.
Developers and Realtors have argued for years that the numbers just don’t pencil out. The bill was passed shortly before the economy crashed in 2007, which also thwarted its effectiveness.
David Goode, a former developer who now leads Maui County’s Department of Public Works, helped build the only homes that have been constructed under the workforce housing ordinance in a project called Na Hale O Kilinahe.
“Why put yourself through the headache, the uncertainty, the added cost, the added capital that’s needed? It just doesn’t make sense.” — David Goode, who developed the only affordable homes constructed under the ordinance
Goode said his company estimated that it would lose about $1 million per “workforce” house, and negotiated with the landowner to get a huge discount on the land in anticipation of that loss.
Goode said it felt good to provide 14 homes for teachers, police officers and other working-class families, but it wasn’t easy.
“We underestimated the amount of effort we would put into it,” he said.
He said the ordinance drove developers to get involved with other projects that wouldn’t trigger the workforce housing requirement.
“Why put yourself through the headache, the uncertainty, the added cost, the added capital that’s needed?” he said. “It just doesn’t make sense.”
The bill that’s on its way to the full Maui County Council would cut the requirement to make half of each residential project affordable to one-fifth.
That percentage is in line with cities such as Boulder, Colorado, where the requirement is also 20 percent, but is still higher than cities like Boston and San Diego, which have 10 percent minimums.
The bill also lowers the target income group to people earning up to 140 percent of area median income, or $112,980 for a family of four. The current law allows developers to build homes for residents earning up to 160 percent of area median income, or $129,120 for a family of four.
Maui County’s deliberations come as Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell pushes for tighter affordable housing rules.
Maui County’s deliberations over its workforce housing ordinance come as Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell pushes for tighter affordable housing rules on Oahu. But on at least two fronts, the counties are heading in opposite directions.
While Caldwell is hoping to ensure homes in Honolulu remain affordable for 30 to 60 years — far more than the current requirement of 10 years — the Maui County bill changes the length of time that some homes must remain affordable from “perpetuity” to as little as five years in the case of homes that are on the market.
And while Caldwell’s affordable housing policy encourages mixed-income communities, Maui County’s bill gets rid of incentives to build homes on-site. That makes it easier for developers to build lower-priced homes on more affordable land, but also makes it less likely that working-class people will be able to live in wealthier neighborhoods.
Harman from FACE initially supported the idea of creating a task force to address the workforce housing issue. But from the first meeting, she felt the process was rushed and ideas weren’t being vetted.
Irene Bowie from the group Maui Tomorrow was similarly frustrated.
“For such a big issue it just seemed like moving way too quickly,” Bowie said. She also had concerns about the composition of the task force which seemed “lopsided” to her. Five of the seven members had opposed the workforce housing requirement, with the exception of Harman and herself, Bowie said.
One of the task force members, Charlie Jencks, is a developer whose project called Honuaula, formerly known as Wailea 670, may be allowed to build fewer affordable homes if the bill his passed.
Jencks wouldn’t say if he would benefit financially from the new bill, but said the revised ordinance would make it easier for him to build affordable units.
It’s unclear exactly how the bill would apply to Jencks’ project, or others that are in the works. Jeff Ueoka, attorney for Maui County, said the county would have to look at each project individually to determine the new ordinance’s applicability.
Maui County Councilwoman Stacy Crivello also didn’t know how the bill would affect existing projects, but said she sees the measure as the beginning of the process of tackling the county’s housing problem, rather than the solution.
Another council member, Elle Cochran, is planning to vote against the measure. A political action committee created by the carpenters’ union spent $31,099.68 on mailers to oppose her candidacy in the last election. Cochran is concerned about how the new workforce housing ordinance would shorten the affordability period for homes, as well as FACE’s negative experience on the task force.
If the measure does pass, as expected, Cochran hopes that it actually translates into more moderate-priced homes being built.
“Let’s see the ground being broken,” she said.
Mateo, the former Council chairman, put it more bluntly: “Talk is cheap. Proof of the pudding is build the damn houses.”