Leaders of the state Senate and House of Representatives said Tuesday they are making good on promises to make helping the homeless and providing affordable housing a top priority.
House measures that have now cleared the chamber seek to support homeless families that are working, help homeless individuals and families who want to rent permanently, assist homeless youth without family and aid people in getting government identification.
Senate measures would create minimum requirements for shelters, give the state Department of Human Services greater oversight and assistance, appropriate funds for care and treatment of homeless people with mental health problems and establish a goal of providing at least 22,500 more affordable housing units.
The bills, said Senate Majority Leader Kalani English, show that his members are listening to “the concerns of constituents.”
House Speaker Joe Souki said the measures would “go a long way” toward getting people off the streets to help them become “functioning members of our society.”
The measures faced a first “crossover” deadline this week for non-budget-related bills to move from one chamber to another.
What’s not clear, however, is how much money would be dedicated to the measures.
There are some specific numbers in several bills. For instance, Senate Bill 2566 would transfer $9.5 million in “excess” money from a revolving fund for rental assistance to another dedicated to rental housing, while Senate Bill 2559 calls for $5 million “or so” to set up or improve transitional shelters as long as the same amount is deducted from another measure dealing with excess revenue.
But other measures leave the dollar amounts blank for now.
The same goes for an omnibus housing measure, House Bill 2244. It has passed the House and is in the Senate, but for now dollar amounts are left blank for funding the Rental Housing Trust Fund, the state’s public housing agency, for the rental assistance program (also known as the Shallow Rent Subsidy Program) and for Housing First under DHS and its expansion to the neighbor islands,
Similarly, House Bill 2647 leaves blank how much money it would cost to establish a Work for a Day Pilot Program offering “work opportunities” to homeless people that would be administered by the City and County of Honolulu.
Leaving specific dollar amounts out of a bill at this point in the legislative process is not unusual. For advocates of more support for affordable housing and the homeless, the fact that so many substantial pieces of legislation devoted to those purposes remain alive is a good sign.
“I think there seems to be a lot of focus and attention on both issues,” said Scott Morishige, Gov. David Ige’s coordinator on homelessness. “Our goal is really to look at permanent housing as an end goal. The right types of intervention can connect people to permanent housing more quickly.”
Morishige said most of the administration’s priorities remain alive, but they are in the state budget bill, which is still to be heard in the Senate.
The budget includes money requested for more outreach workers on the neighbor islands. Kauai, for example, has only one such position.
“No one size fits all,” said Morishige. “It is really important to understand each person’s unique situation, and the outreach staff play that critical role.”
Meanwhile, another measure moving through the House to deal with housing would expand the low income-household renter’s income tax credit based on adjusted gross income. And a bill that would increase funding for affordable rental housing development by making the state’s low-income housing tax credit more valuable has already arrived in the Senate.
“I think it’s good that the House and Senate as well as the governor agree we need to deliver,” said House Vice Speaker John Mizuno. “We are not out of the woods in having the highest per capita homeless, but that we are taking substantial steps to reduce homelessness is a great start.”
Mizuno added that as the bills move from House to Senate and vice versa, and then on to joint conference committee, legislation will continue to evolve. The same goes for the live items in the budget bill.
But he said he was confidant that final legislation would reflect that housing and homeless remain priorities once the session concludes in early May.