Let’s face it: It costs real money to do anything meaningful about homelessness and affordable housing in Hawaii.

Trying to do things on the cheap got us to where we are today — in a homelessness crisis officially classified a statewide emergency six months ago by Gov. David Ige, with at least 7,000 homeless individuals scattered around Hawaii.

Last year, the Legislature lowballed or entirely ignored opportunities to make a difference in areas like rental housing, maintenance and repair funding for Hawaii public housing and affordable housing projects

But lawmakers are moving in a more promising direction this year.

A contractor hired to handle trash during a homeless sweep in Kakaako last December picks up cardboard, coconuts and other trash just after 5 a.m. as three little girls wait patiently for what's next.
A contractor hired to handle trash during a homeless sweep in Kakaako in December picks up cardboard, coconuts and other debris just after 5 a.m. as two girls wait patiently for whatever’s next. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

State Senate leaders are pushing for significant investment in multiple areas, among them:

  • $50 million for the Rental Housing Revolving Fund, formerly known as the Rental Housing Trust Fund, for construction of an estimated 400 affordable housing units. The amount is less than the governor requested, but combined with last year’s appropriation it would total $100 million in new money for the trust fund, which provides low-interest loans or grants to owners and developers building affordable housing units.
  • $60 million for shovel-ready affordable housing projects on all the islands and $9 million for an affordable housing and homeless service center in Iwilei, all from the Dwelling Unit Revolving Fund. The service center is notable in that it would fall within a Transit-Oriented Development zone, which would help facilitate housing near public transportation — critical to helping families not only get shelter, but find employment.
  • $3 million for the Housing First initiative for homelessness, $2 million for rapid re-housing and $2 million for outreach on neighbor islands. That total of $7 million is for areas that were largely missing from the current year’s budget but that are “critical to tackling homelessness at all levels, including chronically homeless individuals, working families and unaccompanied youth,” according to the Honolulu advocacy organization, PHOCUSED.

And those aren’t the only measures this session that could make a difference in housing. Senate Bill 2561 would require the development of 22,500 affordable housing rental units over the next decade. Those units would go to families of four earning no more than 140 percent of the area median income for a family of the same size. For a family of four, the limit would be $95,480. CORRECTION: An earlier version of this editorial included an incorrect figure for the income limit for a family of four.

Gov. David Ige, House Speaker Joe Souki and Senate President Ron Kouchi said homelessness and affordable housing would be top priorities this year.

It’s one of nearly 20 bills that would target some aspect of homelessness or affordable housing.

“Last year, we were pushing for expansion in some programs and new programs in other areas to address the needs of our populations,” said Scott Fuji, executive director of PHOCUSED.

Funding attached to some of those requests was cut last year. “The fact that these initiatives are back in the budget and at these higher numbers — that’s fantastic. It’s a big step forward,” he said.

All eyes are now on the House, where Finance Chair Sylvia Luke has so far not made these areas a budget priority. As many of these issues go into conference committee, the political proposition for House conferees isn’t very attractive: If significant new funding for affordable housing and homelessness stays in the budget, the Senate will get much of the credit for showing leadership; if it doesn’t, the House will get most of the blame for roadblocking progress.

But there’s still a lot of work to be done before the budget is finished probably later this week. And legislators should keep two central ideas firmly in mind:

• Thousands of homeless people as well as thousands more who are in need of affordable housing are experiencing real problems — right now. Failing to step up in the face of such human suffering is morally unacceptable and it would diminish public faith in our state government to take appropriate action when an emergency declaration has been made.

• Funding at the levels that Senate leadership is putting forward must not be seen as a one-time-only proposition. Lawmakers must plan for a series of housing and homelessness budgets of this size over the next several years, simply to catch up to needs that haven’t been met in the past.

At the beginning of this year’s legislative session, Ige, House Speaker Joe Souki and Senate President Ron Kouchi all indicated that homelessness and affordable housing would be top priorities this year.

“You cannot talk about homelessness without talking about the major reason why it has become so widespread. And that is the lack of affordable housing,” Ige said in January in his State of the State address. “It is estimated that 66,000 housing units are needed in the coming years. The state alone cannot fill the gap, but the state wants to do its part.”

At Wednesday’s press conference, Kouchi, who is serving his first term as Senate president, offered very personal reasons to believe in the Senate’s commitment on those issues, noting that both his family and that of Ways and Means Chair Jill Tokuda both benefited years ago from federal housing assistance and “know the difference that government can make.”

For the sake of individuals and communities throughout our state dealing with these pernicious challenges, the House’s understanding must be no less, and its commitment just as heartfelt.

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