At a recent press conference to show support for bills to help the homeless and provide affordable housing, state Senate President Ron Kouchi quoted from the Bible.
“The greatest among you will be your servant,” he said, citing Matthew 23:11-12. “For those who exalt themselves shall be humbled, and those who humble themselves shall be exalted.”
Kouchi’s words meant a lot to the people who organized the press conference April 13 in the Capitol rotunda.
PHOCUSED, Faith Action for Community Equity, the Housing Now! Coalition and Partners In Care/Catholic Charities were on hand to congratulate the Senate on approving a state budget that appropriated monies to various programs.
In addition to the Senate president, Donovan Dela Cruz, vice chairman of Ways and Means, was there too.
Noticeably absent, however, was anyone from the House of Representatives. Asked about that, Scott Fuji of PHOCUSED said the press conference was intended to highlight the Senate’s version of the budget bill, known as House Bill 1700.
But housing and homeless advocates have their worries, and some complain that the House Finance Committee took out a lot of the funding or left dollar figures blank when it had its crack at the budget. Ways and Means then put some dollar figures back in.
As it currently stands, the budget provides $3 million for a Housing First program, $2 million for rapid re-housing services, $2.7 million for a pilot program to repair vacant public housing units, $1.1 million for homeless outreach services, $450,000 for a new homeless shelter in Kakaako and $200,000 for a stored property program.
The Senate draft includes $50 million for the Rental Housing Trust Fund (down from the $75 million requested by Gov. David Ige), $33 million for the Dwelling Unit Revolving Fund and $35 million for the Hawaii Public Housing Authority.
It was this version of the budget that the advocates praised. Especially welcome was $60 million for “shovel-ready” affordable housing projects on all the islands.
Asked if the House cared as much about housing and homelessness, Kouchi said he thought it did, and he gave credit to the media for continuing to report on the issue and keep the pressure on.
“I believe the House will support many of these measures,” he said. “They are hearing from a lot of the same advocates, and I think the message is clear. I’m just glad we had an opportunity to make a statement of how important we think it is.”
John Mizuno, House vice speaker, agreed that housing and homelessness remain top priorities of Speaker Joe Souki and his colleagues.
“But the big question is, do we have the funding?” he said Tuesday. “That is the issue. You have a lot of people every year asking for money, but at the end of the day, do we have the funding?”
Mizuno expressed confidence in Finance Chair Sylvia Luke, saying she is “extremely careful” to make sure that items in the budget are justified. To advocates for the homeless and housing, Mizuno’s advice is that they “hang tight.”
The budget bill is not the only measure at play.
Nearly 20 individual bills that have made it to conference committee range from low-income housing tax credits to giving money to the Rental Housing Revolving Fund, from funding outreach to homeless individuals and families to regulating shelters, from establishing a community court project on Oahu to enabling the Hawaii Housing Finance and Development Corporation to develop mixed-use developments in partnerships.
Mizuno singled out Senate Bill 2561, which calls for 22,500 new affordable rental units in the next 10 years. While lauding the goal, he said he’d be happy if just half that number were built.
As with so many bills at this point in the process, dollar figures for all those measures are currently left blank.
On Tuesday, the budget conferees, headed by Luke and Ways and Means Chair Jill Tokuda, met for the first time publicly to say that they agree on more budget items than they don’t.
“I hope they do the right thing,” said the Rev. David Gierlach, rector of St. Elizabeth’s Episcopal Church and former chair of the Hawaii Public Housing Authority. “My concern is that they do not understand the depth and magnitude of the problem, or if they do, they are not willing to put up the financial resources to make a statement in solving the problem. So I hope they prove me wrong by end of session.”
Gierlach added, “With 7,000 folks living on our streets, this is not the time to be terribly budget conscious.”
Gierlach plans to be at the Capitol on Thursday afternoon when a rally is scheduled in the rotunda to raise awareness of affordable housing.
“We want to make sure that affordable housing is a top priority for the Legislature,” said Catherine Graham, who is with FACE and the Housing Now! Coalition. “The Senate has really been very generous this session and the House has been more reluctant. So, during conference committee time we hope to influence the House and the Finance Committee chair and members to come around to the Senate way of seeing things.”
Kouchi said he intends to fulfill the promise he made on affordable housing and homeless issues during his opening day speech in January.
“I was one of those persons the first time that my family moved into (a house) was through a federal subsidy program, and it still felt incredible to walk into a home that we could call our own for the very first time,” he recalled. “Chair Tokuda used to have a Section 8 Housing sustenance assistance, so we know what it’s like and we know the difference that government can make.”