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Mayor Kirk Caldwell is taking heat from his political opponents who say he hasn’t done enough to lessen homelessness and increase affordable housing in Honolulu.
That’s not to say he hasn’t tried. Caldwell implemented a local version of Housing First, which involves getting homeless people into housing before providing support services.
He introduced and signed a bill that allows homeowners to build small rental units on their property, known as accessory dwelling units, and followed up with another measure to waive permitting fees to encourage development.
But progress has been slow. The city’s Housing First contract helped 176 clients, but the number of homeless people in Honolulu reached 4,940 as of a January survey.
Just two accessory dwelling units have been constructed, according to the city’s permitting department, and the mayor hasn’t even introduced the bill to expand the city’s affordable housing requirement because of resistance from developers.
Caldwell’s top challengers, Charles Djou and Peter Carlisle, say four years is long enough to see that the mayor’s efforts have failed.
Both Djou and Carlisle think it’s a bad idea to establish an island-wide affordable housing requirement and disagree with the mayor’s efforts to increase the number of city staff members who work on housing.
Djou wants to shift the money that’s being spent on city initiatives addressing homelessness to nonprofits and create a program in which low-income people receiving housing vouchers must save money over time to pay for a home.
Carlisle thinks the city should partner with the medical community to address homeless people’s mental health issues and sell off its affordable housing stock.
The three candidates do have similarities. They all support laws that bar people from sitting and lying on sidewalks, which have been criticized as criminalizing homelessness while doing little to get people into permanent housing.
When it comes to providing affordable housing, they all support faster permitting, developing the urban core and partnering with private developers.
Caldwell is confident that his initiatives will show significant results — over time.
“People like to see things solved in a media cycle. Homelessness was created over decades,” he said in a recent interview with Civil Beat.
If Caldwell gets another term, he doesn’t plan to introduce new strategies or scrap existing ones.
“We’re going to stay the course,” he said. “We’ve got a model that’s starting to work.”
Caldwell pointed out that while homelessness grew 4 percent statewide, it rose just 1 percent in Honolulu over the past year, an increase of 37 people.
He believes his administration’s efforts to house people helped prevent a bigger increase. One of his biggest accomplishments was housing 803 veterans as of July 22 through a national initiative to end veterans’ homelessness.
The city housed another 176 people through its Housing First contract with the nonprofit Institute for Human Services, which had a 97 percent retention rate as of Dec. 31, according to an analysis by the University of Hawaii. That brings the total number of people housed to 979.
“I don’t know another mayor in Honolulu who housed that many people,” Caldwell said.
The city has awarded a second Housing First contract to the nonprofit U.S.VETS to house another 100 families.
Despite resistance from the City Council, Caldwell established the Office of Strategic Development, a two-person office that works with developers to create housing for homeless and low-income people.
The office established a transitional shelter at Sand Island, helped usher through a senior housing complex in Chinatown and partnered with businessman Duane Kurisu to create a plantation-style village for homeless people.
But Caldwell’s efforts have been hindered by his poor relationship with City Council members. He said such problems are typical and didn’t identify anything he would do to improve the relationship if he’s re-elected.
And his other initiatives have been slow to bear results. The mayor’s effort to boost low-income rentals – which he said could create thousands of rental units — resulted in just 28 permits as of last month.
While Caldwell has been laying the groundwork for affordable housing to be built around the rail line — known as transit-oriented development — he said it will likely happen “over decades.”
And Caldwell’s proposal for an island-wide affordable housing requirement hasn’t gone anywhere. The mayor said in a recent interview that city officials are still analyzing it and he doesn’t have a specific timeline for introducing a bill to the City Council.
“It’s going to take as long as it takes to get the developers and everyone else who’s financing the lenders to say it’s going to work,” he said. “We’re not going to rush it.”
“Introducing bills doesn’t mean anything. Passing legislation doesn’t mean anything. It’s the result that you get that means everything,” he said.
Carlisle, who served as mayor for two years but lost his re-election bid to Caldwell, said his strategy for addressing homelessness during his term focused on law enforcement.
While he wants to continue that strategy, he said he now realizes it wasn’t enough. He wants to couple enforcement with an effort to help people with mental health problems, who make up the majority of Hawaii’s homeless population.
Carlisle describes the strategy as “individualized intervention and consequences” and said it’s inspired by conversations he had with Dr. Jim Ireland, who led the Honolulu Department of Emergency Services when Carlisle was mayor.
Ireland set up a team of paramedics who reached out to homeless people who were frequently calling 911 and tying up services.
“There are some people coming to the ER every day because they just want a sandwich,” Ireland said Tuesday. “It’s a lot less expensive to address their social issue.”
The Caldwell administration dropped the program midway through 2013.
Carlisle said if he takes office next year, he would reach out to the medical community to figure out how they can partner with the city to address homelessness.
Carlisle is wary of Housing First, contending that while it may work for alcoholics he thinks it’s less likely to work for people who are drug addicts or are homeless for other reasons. But he didn’t provide any evidence or examples to back up that assertion when asked and acknowledged that it’s been successful in some places.
“It’s at least got them out of a place where they’re endangering others,” he said.
When asked whether he would support Housing First or rental vouchers for people who are homeless because they can’t afford rent, Carlisle said: “I’d have to take a look at it. I haven’t done this for years.”
Carlisle is skeptical of Caldwell’s proposal for an island-wide affordable housing requirement.
“What I think it’s going to do is push up the cost of housing,” he said.
Carlisle said his biggest accomplishment related to affordable housing while he was mayor was to push forward with the rail project, which is expected to spur housing development once it’s complete.
He supports public-private partnerships and still thinks it’s a good idea for the city to sell its affordable housing stock, something he worked on during his term but that was rejected by the Council after Caldwell took over. Carlisle said that shouldn’t have happened.
“If you’re sitting in the mayor’s seat then you sit there and say this is going to be done,” he said. “Then you lobby every member of the Council. … That’s what’s called a strong mayor system.”
Djou wants to shift money that’s going to city homelessness programs to nonprofits.
“Nonprofits can do a much better job more quickly, reach more people, at a lower cost, than the city government can,” he said.
Djou didn’t provide details of how that would work.
“What I do have is an understanding of the big picture and what we’re doing right now isn’t working,” he said. “But the specific details of what nonprofits should do and how they should do it and how they should structure it here, I am going to defer to nonprofits.”
For people who are receiving housing vouchers such as the federal Section 8 program, Djou wants to mandate that they set aside a certain amount of money for an eventual down payment on a residence.
Djou said he doesn’t know if that has worked elsewhere, but says it’s a creative way to get more turnover in low-income housing. Because Section 8 is a federal program, it’s unclear whether that would be possible without an act of Congress.
He agrees with the mayor’s efforts to create accessory dwelling units, but says that’s not enough. He opposes the mayor’s plan for an island-wide affordable housing requirement.
“While it sounds nice, I am concerned it will put a damper on the construction of new units,” Djou said. “It actually would exacerbate the problem rather than fix it.”
Djou said he wants to revamp the city’s zoning code to encourage more urban infill development. That’s also something the Caldwell administration has worked on around planned rail stations.
Djou said that as a City Council member, he helped create a “third party review” system that helps permits get approved more quickly.
As for Housing First, Djou said it’s “not a bad idea.”
Beyond that, he said it’s important that homeless people are connected with nonprofits who can provide counseling and services.
“I think what we’ve started so far is good,” he said. “I don’t disagree with Mayor Caldwell in terms of the Housing First initiative. I think that we can, should and need to do more.”