Rep. Sylvia Luke’s comments in Anita Hofschneider’s Monday report on why 175 public housing units remain vacant even as Honolulu works to find accommodations for the homeless seem to have been either a remarkable admission or a cringe-worthy example of political tone-deafness.

Discussing the city homeless “sweeps” that she described as “not working” and contributing to the growth of homeless camps in Kakaako and along the Kapalama Canal, the House Finance Committee chair made a startling declaration: “I think the unfortunate thing was that we’ve known what was going on and we just sort of put our heads in the sand and hoped that somebody else would take care of it.”

Um, say what?

Tents line the sidewalks at Ohe Street near Waterfront Park in Kakaako.  30dec2014 . photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Tents sheltering the homeless line the sidewalks at Ohe Street near Waterfront Park in Kakaako.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Luke and her colleagues had multiple opportunities in the recently concluded legislative session to at least make a dent in Hawaii’s rapidly growing homeless problem and related challenges in affordable housing. But when the Hawaii Housing Authority said it needed $180 million to begin addressing the serious and growing $820 million backlog of public housing maintenance needs, legislators ponied up $4.1 million, instead.

Legislators shorted the request while simultaneously ending a civil service exemption to union labor that had made assembling rapid response teams for housing repairs a quick and less expensive process. Those decisions will result in a doubling of the current 175 vacancies, housing that could shelter more than 1,200 individuals — nearly one-fourth of Honolulu’s current homeless population.

Perhaps the most frustrating part is that the state has made such strong progress in better utilizing its public housing stock over the past 10 years, lowering vacancy rates from as high as 15 percent in 2005 to the less than 3 percent represented by the current 175 vacancies. The actions of the past legislative session will erase some of those gains. And as Hofschneider reports, this all plays out as the statewide wait list for public housing is 10,000 strong.

Luke & Co. also had the opportunity to make a meaningful contribution to affordable housing by approving a request from Gov. David Ige for $100 million for the Rental Housing Trust Fund to cover construction costs for new rental units. Instead, the Legislature cut that amount to $40 million, and capped the amount the fund can receive from its dedicated funding source, the conveyance tax, at $38 million.

Indeed, in multiple other instances where legislators might have made a difference for the homeless or those of modest means, most bills were either watered down or abandoned entirely, with the exception of Senate Bill 555, a measure that increased the food/excise refundable tax credit for low income taxpayers by a measly $25 a year for those earning less than $5,000 annually. And they failed to expand a tax credit for low-income renters that has been stuck at only $50 annually per dependent for a quarter century.

In multiple instances where legislators might have made a difference for the homeless or those of modest means, most bills were either watered down or abandoned entirely.

Such actions stand in stark contrast to the Legislature’s practically round-the-clock work in the final days of the session to pass a five-year extension on the highly regressive general excise tax supporting the Honolulu rail project. In part, that was a response to claims by Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell, who said that without it, property taxes might have to be raised somewhere between 30 percent and 43 percent to cover rail construction, operation and maintenance costs.

Rail is a big and important project, and absolutely deserves the attention it gets — perhaps even more so. It would be gratifying to see lawmakers give issues concerning the poor and dispossessed something approaching that level of energy and time.

Being a legislator is a tough job — doubly so for individuals serving in powerful committee chairmanships such as Luke or her Senate counterpart, Ways and Means Chair Jill Tokuda. Judgments on matters big and small crowd their to-do lists daily, and the decisions they make often have lasting impact for our state. We don’t envy their responsibilities or workloads.

But it must be said that in the 2015 legislative session, with major issues on the table holding promise for some of Hawaii’s most vulnerable residents, legislators failed those individuals. And they did so as the very problems that lawmakers had the opportunity to tackle were getting noticeably, measurably worse.

As Hawaii struggles over this sweltering summer to meet the challenges of a historically large homeless population and to make basic, essential repairs to unoccupied public housing units, let us hope — no let us collectively demand — that legislators remove their heads from the sand.

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