A group of Honolulu City Council members want the state Legislature to appropriate enough money for public housing to renovate hundreds of empty units, according to a resolution approved Tuesday.

The measure, introduced by Councilman Brandon Elefante, was one of several resolutions considered during a hearing on Honolulu’s housing and homelessness crisis by the Committee on Public Health, Safety and Welfare.

According to the state Public Housing Authority, more than 400 public housing units are sitting empty, largely because they’re old and need repairs. Despite the need, the Legislature vastly underfunded the agency this year, setting aside less than $5 million despite an immediate repair and maintenance backlog of $180 million.

2907 Ala Ilima Street. Salt Lake. Honolulu. Housing. 16 july 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
All of the 28 two-bedroom units are empty in the Salt Lake Apartments because the Hawaii Public Housing Authority doesn’t have enough money to fix them. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Elefante said he decided to introduce the resolution after speaking to service providers and reading media reports about the need for repairs at the Hawaii Public Housing Authority.

“They’re the first opportunity for folks who are vulnerable and low-income to get housing,” Elefante said. “It’s important to have that funding in place. You want to make sure there are safe conditions.”

The panel also adopted a resolution urging the city to remove sidewalk nuisances more quickly, despite a lawsuit contending that the ordinance is unconstitutional.

Councilwoman Ann Kobayashi, who introduced the measure, said she has small-business owners’ interests at heart. Councilman Trevor Ozawa agreed.

“I really feel for our tourists who pay a lot of money and are walking on the streets and see homeless sleeping on the sidewalks,” he said.

Elefante voted against that resolution, but introduced another measure approved Tuesday that encourages the city to expand its Housing First program and prioritize homeless families.

The city’s program has housed 165 people over the past year, a tiny fraction of the estimated more than 4,903 homeless people in the city.

The panel also passed a resolution by Council members Joey Manahan and Ernie Martin requesting an audit of the city’s Section 8 rental-housing subsidy program. Statewide, many residents have had a hard time finding a place to rent, even with the vouchers, because of a relative lack of affordable rental housing.

The resolution asks the city auditor to figure out whether city staffing levels are sufficient, what’s preventing property owners from participating in the subsidy program, how to prevent fraud and what Section 8 best practices are in other cities.

Additional resolutions approved Tuesday ask the city to consider establishing mobile health services and hygiene centers for homeless people.

The measures now go to the full Council for further consideration.

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