Honolulu’s dramatic shortage of affordable housing hasn’t changed a political reality: When constituents complain about proposed new developments in their neighborhoods, City Council members listen.
Council members discussed two projects this week that are in areas already zoned for housing but still have sparked opposition from nearby residents.
A plan by developer Douglas Emmett to add 490 rental housing units to the Moanalua Hillside Apartments, could be halted by two bills that would impose a six-month moratorium on construction in Aiea, Red Hill, Moanalua and Salt Lake. One bill would stretch the moratorium to encompass Honolulu International Airport, Aliamanu and Kalihi.
Several Moanalua residents testified Thursday in support of the moratorium, saying the additional apartments would worsen traffic jams and make it harder to find on-street parking. But Councilman Ikaika Anderson, chair of the Council’s Zoning and Planning Committee, said he wants city attorneys to analyze the bill’s legality before he schedules a vote.
A separate proposal by Michaels Development to build a 151-unit senior housing complex in Chinatown received initial approval from the Council Budget Committee this week, but only after committee members delayed hearing the resolution for several months while seeking input from community members.
Now the project — which the developer initially expected to break ground on this year — likely won’t begin construction until late 2017.
The Chinatown project had its own neighborhood critics who testified before the Council Budget Committee on Wednesday.
“Unfortunately affordable housing has been equated with low income people and there is a strong bias against having low income, poor people, living in your community.” — Rev. Bob Nakata, Faith Action for Community Equity
“I am very concerned the new building will not have a healthy environment and it will also create a very negative feng shui environment,” said business owner Cassanna Gao.
The development would be located next to a mortuary where bodies are cremated, and Gao and others said they’re concerned about whether the project will provide enough ventilation to avoid smoke problems.
Both the Chinatown senior housing complex and the Moanalua project would be built within the city’s urban core, where Council-approved land use plans say the city should concentrate development.
The senior housing complex would serve people who earn 80 percent or less of area median income (an individual would have to earn $56,350 or less). The Moanalua apartment complex would consist entirely of studios and one-bedroom rentals aimed at people earning between 50 and 140 percent of area median income, the upper limit of the city’s affordable housing definition.
Rev. Bob Nakata, an affordable housing advocate for the nonprofit Faith Action for Community Equity, said he finds the proposed moratorium “troubling.”
“I’m a little afraid that the Council may be bending to the NIMBY pressure,” he said, referring to the phrase, “Not in my back yard.”
“Most communities don’t really want affordable housing or lower income people in their area so they look for reasons to oppose affordable housing in their communities,” Nakata said. “I’m afraid something of that nature is going on.”
Honolulu has one of the the highest rates of homelessness in the nation. A 2014 state housing study found that the city needs more than 11,000 rentals by 2020 to meet demand from people earning less than 140 percent of area median income. Thousands of those units are needed by seniors, given Honolulu’s rapidly aging population.
A recent survey commissioned by the advocacy group Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice found that 95 percent of the 500-plus people polled said the high cost of housing is a very serious or important problem in Hawaii.
“The Council should be very careful because we are making it much more difficult to get affordable housing,” Nakata said. “Unfortunately affordable housing has been equated with low income people and there is a strong bias against having low income, poor people, living in your community. It’s a very unfortunate reality.”
Residents who testified Thursday might disagree. Many who support the moratorium in Moanalua said it doesn’t make sense to build units that could add hundreds of vehicles to already congested roads.
“I would urge that nothing be done until the traffic problem is solved,” said Moanalua resident Alan Schiller.
City officials provided little comfort to residents like Schiller.
Mike Formby, who leads the city Department of Transportation Services, said there is not much he can do to address the traffic problems without coordinating with the state Department of Transportation.
No representatives from that agency showed up Thursday, and Formby said that the department’s deputy director, Ed Sniffen, told him there are no short-term solutions to the traffic congestion that can be implemented within the next two years.
That frustrated Councilwoman Carol Fukunaga, who introduced the moratorium bills along with Councilman Joey Manahan and has been advocating on behalf of residents.
“While there have been proposals, there have not been any solutions that have received any long-term commitment,” she said.
Mary Jean Castillo, a resident and board member of the association of apartment dwellers at Moanalua Village, an apartment complex near the proposed Moanalua Hillside expansion, testified in favor of the proposed moratorium, saying traffic congestion and crime have worsened in her neighborhood over the last two years.
“These issues affect the safety, health and welfare of the public so I urge the City Council to please pass Bill 11 and Bill 25,” she said.
But Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s administration opposes the idea.
“We don’t think that the moratorium will solve the problem that it’s trying to solve,” city Department of Planning and Permitting Director George Atta testified Thursday. “It’s a very blunt instrument that may have unintended consequences.”
There’s also the concern that the bill may set a bad precedent. The neighborhood board representing Makakilo and Kapolei passed a resolution in February requesting a moratorium on housing development in West and Central Oahu until traffic studies are completed and remedies implemented.
Like Caldwell, Anderson wasn’t keen on the bills, noting potential legal implications of passing a law that targets one development and requesting a study from city attorneys.
His chief of staff, Gail Myers, said after the hearing that the city has not implemented this type of moratorium since 1993, and never before due to traffic problems.
Anderson criticized state Sen. Donna Mercado Kim for advocating for the bill without reaching out to him and for specifically mentioning the Moanalua Hillside Apartments in a Senate resolution that requests a traffic study of the neighborhood.
“Perhaps she misplaced my phone number and email address, or her hands became incapacitated after she contacted my other colleagues to the point that she was unable to make an effort to reach out to me,” he said in a statement after the hearing. “In any event, the legal concerns are real and valid, and until they’re addressed to my satisfaction I cannot in good conscience schedule these bills for further consideration.”
Several of the Chinatown residents and business owners who testified regarding the senior housing project Wednesday said that they support the project but have serious concerns about how it will be designed.
The $48 million project would involve redeveloping a two-story commercial building into an 18-story structure that would contrast starkly with surrounding low-rises.
Kehaulani Lam, president of the Lum Sai Ho Tong temple, urged the Council to require certain setbacks to ensure that a healthy flow of air will continue.
The City Council Budget Committee amended the proposal to require that Michaels Development review the possibility of such setbacks. The committee approved the resolution, which allows Caldwell to execute a development agreement.
Caldwell thanked the committee on Twitter for approving the resolution. Earlier this year, the mayor expressed frustration with the Council for the delay in scheduling a hearing.
A big mahalo to Council’s Budget Committee for moving forward the development agreement for the Halewaiolu Senior Residences on River St.
— Mayor Kirk Caldwell (@MayorKirkHNL) March 30, 2016
The proposal became a source of tension between Caldwell and Council Chairman Ernie Martin, who is considering running against Caldwell for mayor.
Politics aside, the delay may force Michaels Development to wait until next spring to apply for state funding for the project.
The company originally planned to apply for funding this summer but vice president Karen Seddon said the company needs several months to complete the studies that would make its application competitive.
Because that analysis is costly, Seddon said the company needs the full City Council’s approval before it can move forward. The resolution may be scheduled for a full Council vote April 20.
“Depending on how fast (the resolution) is approved, we might be able to make the September (funding deadline), but it’s really iffy at this point,” she said.
The next funding deadline may not be until next spring, forcing the project back a year. That could make it more expensive, given the rising costs of construction.
Seddon said the company will still be able to price the units affordably, but may have to ask for more money than expected from the state.
In addition to needing approval from the full Council, the project still has a long road ahead.
City spokesman Andrew Pereira said the developer will need to return to the Council to get approval for a long-term lease of city property, giving Council members more opportunity to debate the merits of the project and require conditions.