Honolulu’s pace toward meeting its expanding affordable housing needs isn’t exactly what anyone would call “blazing,” as Civil Beat’s Anita Hofschneider reported earlier this month.

Mayor Kirk Caldwell announced a widely praised “preliminary strategy” on the issue last September, and then … nothing. We may see a new-and-more complete version of that plan later this summer, roughly a year later.

Or we may not. There’s technical analysis to be done, a mainland consultant to consult with and, well — maybe July. Or August.

A study conducted last year shows, however, that this challenge can’t wait: Oahu needs more than 11,000 new rental units for low- and moderate-income households by 2020. That need is reflected, in part, in Honolulu’s annual point-in-time count for homelessness, which in January topped 4,900, up nearly 200 over the previous year. And it’s reflected in the many more Honolulu residents of modest means working two and three jobs to meet their rent-dominated monthly expenses.

Mariners Ridge. Hawaii Kai houses.  8 april 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The average cost of single-family homes on Oahu grew by $16,000 last year, while the cost of condos rose by $20,000.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

But in 2014, only a little more than 800 affordable units were built. Even that modest progress was likely offset by the continued rise in the overall cost of housing. Last month, the media sales price for homes on Oahu was about $700,000 — up about $16,000 over the same month a year ago, according to the Hawaii Board of Realtors. Condo prices were up $20,000 over the same period. The cost of even modest homes is rising beyond the grasp of most middle-class families.

City leaders earlier this month announced a 151-unit housing complex for low-income seniors in Chinatown, with construction beginning as early as next year. The city also has issued a request for proposals to build three 500-square-foot homes in Waianae. And an interesting project under the auspices of the Hawaii Community Development Authority could see a tower take shape next year in Kakaako featuring 104 “micro unit” apartments, renting for about $750 each.

While promising, those projects would provide about 260 rentable units, none of which is likely to be available for occupancy prior to 2017. Development agreements and financing arrangements have yet to be completed for the larger projects and can take months, even without any snags along the way. Proposals won’t be in hand for some time yet for the tiny Waianae project.

A proposal was on the table recently that might have more than doubled the number of affordable units in development, but HCDA refused late last month to approve it. The Howard Hughes Corp.’s plan to convert a proposed 300-unit Kakaako condo development into affordable apartments instead failed because the developer would only commit to affordability standards for 15 years, rather than the 30- to 65-year commitments sought on other projects. Hughes has said it will circle back and try once more to get the project greenlighted.

What seems to be in depressingly short supply is a sense of urgency. The building’s on fire, and rather than pulling all five alarms, we’re witnessing the equivalent of a leisurely walk to a roaring blaze with only a couple pails of water in hand.

In the midst of all this, the Honolulu City Council last week turned back Caldwell’s request for seven new staff positions to help mount a more credible response to affordable housing and homelessness challenges. Though the mayor lobbied for those positions for weeks, calling them critical to making progress, Council Budget Chair Ann Kobayashi said she’d rather see limited funds invested in programming.

We’ll give Kobayashi and her Council colleagues the benefit of the doubt and agree that the mayor might not need all seven positions. But they gave him none, and the Office of Strategic Development — created only last fall, thinly staffed and tasked with meeting the city’s housing needs — is unlikely to make much progress without any additional help on major, complex problems that the city has never answered seriously.

Meanwhile, hundreds of new high-end units are under construction in Kakaako, many of which will be priced beyond the means of average Oahu residents. As is often the case with such developments, many will be owned by out-of-state interests and either left vacant for much of the year or rented at premium prices. As Civil Beat’s Eric Pape reported earlier this week, only about 57 percent of Hawaii residents own the home they live in, compared to 65 percent nationally.

We don’t doubt that City of Honolulu leaders — in the mayor’s office and on the City Council — want to see progress made on affordable housing.

But what seems to be in depressingly short supply — both for affordable housing and on transitional housing for the homeless — is a sense of urgency. The building’s on fire, and rather than pulling all five alarms, we’re witnessing the equivalent of a leisurely walk to a roaring blaze with only a couple pails of water in hand.

City elections are scheduled for next year, and leaders will be judged on how effective their actions have been in responding to these challenges. Caldwell, in particular, declared affordable housing and homelessness two of his top priorities in last September’s high-profile speech.

If the current pace of progress holds, his lack of significant progress may ensure a highly competitive mayoral race and provide challengers with a rich opportunity to show how they might better meet Honolulu’s growing housing needs.

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