The state Department of Budget and Finance is recommending that Hawaii Gov. David Ige include about $31 million in his 2017 supplemental budget request to fund public housing repairs and maintenance.

That would be six times more than Ige sought last year, but still far less than the total amount needed to upgrade more than 6,000 aging public housing units.

The governor is in the midst of nailing down the details of his budget request to the state Legislature, which is due Dec. 21. State agencies are jostling for funding from the Department of Budget and Finance, which is weighing all the requests and working on recommendations to Ige.

Last January, he requested just $5 million for public housing repairs despite an estimated $820 million need for repairs over the next 10 years.

Boarded up end units at Kalihi Valley Homes Building 20. Public Housing. 6 july 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Dozens of units sit empty at Kalihi Valley Homes last July while awaiting repairs. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The Legislature ultimately approved $4.15 million for repairs and another $850,000 to cover wages and benefits for staff members implementing the Hawaii Public Housing Authority’s capital improvement projects.

Public housing serves some of Hawaii’s poorest residents and helps meet the high demand for low-income rental units, but if facilities aren’t maintained the state may be forced to shut down buildings or risk expensive lawsuits.

Civil Beat reported in July that about 175 public housing units were vacant despite the state’s homelessness crisis. Another 239 units were empty because they were being modernized.

“Having units sit empty because of needed repairs does not make sense in the middle of an affordable housing crisis.” — Gavin Thornton, Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice

The Honolulu City Council adopted a resolution Nov. 4 urging the Legislature to ensure that empty public housing units are renovated to help meet the high demand for low-income housing.

It appears the state Budget and Finance Department is responding.

In a preliminary report dated Dec. 1, the agency recommends that Ige seek $25 million to renovate public housing statewide and another $6 million specifically to expedite the repair of vacant units.

The agency also recommends cutting some funding for Housing Authority staff positions and changing how they are funded, which would bring the total amount of new funding sought for public housing to $30.7 million.

Governor David Ige during press conference announcing several bills he will veto. 29 june 2015. photograph by Cory Lum/Civil Beat
If he follows the recommendation of his Department of Budget and Finance, Gov. David Ige will ask for a significant increase in funds to repair public housing units. But the recommendation is still for far less money than former Gov. Neil Abercrombie procured for that purpose. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The Housing Authority didn’t respond to a request seeking an update of how many units are empty and how many could be fixed with $6 million.

Last July, the agency said it would take $9.5 million to bring 175 vacant units back online. That doesn’t include site improvements such as updating building exteriors or common areas, which may be required by federal law.

While a significant increase from last year’s request, the $30.7 million is just a fraction of the $153 million that the Housing Authority requested this year to shrink its repair and maintenance backlog.

Wes Machida is the man behind the state budget. In a phone interview Friday, the director of Budget and Finance was quick to emphasize that his department’s budget recommendation is still in flux and won’t be final until Dec. 21.

Machida said the recommended set-aside for public housing would be higher if not for the competing needs of education and health care. Still, he said providing affordable housing is one of the governor’s priorities.

Regardless of what the governor seeks, the Legislature is likely to provide less.

Ige has said as much since he was on the campaign trail last year, but he still only sought $5 million for public housing repairs in his 2016 budget request. That was despite the Housing Authority seeking $180 million at that time for repairs and maintenance.

The governor explained last summer that the request wasn’t higher because he was also seeking $100 million for the Rental Housing Trust Fund, which subsidizes private development of new low-income rentals.

It looks like a similar trade-off may be in the works this time around. The draft budget recommends that Ige seek $75 million for the Rental Housing Trust Fund rather than $100 million.

Regardless of what the governor seeks, the Legislature is likely to provide less. Last year, lawmakers approved $40 million for the Rental Housing Trust Fund and less than $5 million for public housing repairs.

The leaders of the state House and Senate finance committees didn’t reply to messages seeking comments for this report.

Even if both Ige and the Legislature approve the $30.7 million funding for public housing repairs, the total biennial appropriation of less than $36 million in 2016-2017 would still be far less than the $71 million former Gov. Neil Abercrombie approved in his last biennium.

Gavin Thornton, co-executive director of the Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice, said in an email that he’s happy Ige may seek more money for public housing repairs, but wonders why the funding level isn’t approaching the amount appropriated during Abercrombie’s tenure.

“With homelessness continuing to climb and the problem being on center stage, now is an ideal time to do what has really not been done in the state’s recent history — fund public housing at the level necessary to make public housing safe and habitable for our families that need it,” Thornton said. “Having units sit empty because of needed repairs does not make sense in the middle of an affordable housing crisis.”

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