Honolulu is far from meeting its enormous and growing need for affordable housing, so it’s frustrating to hear about the dynamics around development of yet another new luxury condo project that, once again, lacks affordable housing.

Though it continues to get worse, the need isn’t new. Unfortunately, neither is the propensity of city leaders to miss opportunities to do much of anything about it.

A 36-story luxury condo and hotel project proposed by Manaolana Partners on a site at Atkinson Street and Kapiolani Boulevard — across the street from the Hawaii Convention Center — is a looming example of exactly that. The City Council postponed a decision on that project last week, but it needs to be rejected outright, until Manaolana Partners agrees to play by the rules set up to govern this specific type of development.

Kapiolani Boulevard Atkinson intersection for Anita. 6 sept 2016
The intersection of Kapiolani Boulevard and Atkinson Street where the Manaolana Partners. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

It’s the first development to be considered under new guidelines intended in part to spur affordable housing near Honolulu rail line stops. Developers  enjoy relaxed height, density and parking restrictions in exchange for incorporating affordable units into their projects.

Despite proposing a height that would exceed the usual maximum by 68 feet and half the number of parking spaces that would normally be required, the Manaolana Hotel Place and Residential Condominium proposal includes no affordable housing units.

That’s right — none. As in, not a single one. Despite that rather glaring problem, the project, with all its special allowances, was hurtling toward approval last week until Council member Trevor Ozawa, who chairs the council Zoning and Planning Committee, applied the brakes.

Good for Ozawa, who said he wants to fine-tune the proposal to make sure he and his council colleagues don’t “get it wrong.”

But how did the proposal get this far along without compliance with the defining characteristic of the new permitting process for residential projects near rail stops?

It’s the first development to be considered under new guidelines intended to spur affordable housing near Honolulu rail line stops. Developers enjoy relaxed height, density and parking restrictions in exchange for incorporating affordable units into their projects.

After all, rail proponents for years have been touting these developments as holding major promise for a city with hellish housing and transportation challenges. With incentives, planners thought developers would incorporate low-income units that would allow residents to live close to both transportation and work, spurring additional development around the rail line while decreasing residents’ need to drive.

If developers don’t incorporate those affordable units, the developments’ ability to make a difference in Honolulu’s housing challenges falls apart.

The city Department of Planning and Permitting admits that the project fails its standard of review for affordable housing. But officials there argue low-income condo residents would have a hard time paying the project’s high monthly maintenance fees.

If that’s the rationale, it might well apply to virtually every new project along the rail line’s final five miles, given other pricey developments in Kakaako and neighboring areas. If city officials acquiesce to Manaolana Partners’ wishes, as they still seem prepared to do, that poor precedent would increase the likelihood of other developers seeking the same ability to be absolved of pesky development restrictions while providing zero affordable housing.

Manaolana Partners’ approach is to simply buy its way out of the affordable housing requirement. The California-based developer promises to set aside $2.4 million for the city’s affordable housing fund. Which may sound nice, but developer donations to the fund haven’t been used to build any low-income housing units in 18 years.

Manaolana Partners argues that its “community benefits package” is valued at $7 million, which it says is the largest of any project undertaken in Honolulu.

But elements within that package have nothing to do with affordable housing. Things like outdoor restaurants and parklets, a 5,000-square-foot plaza and a new bus stop and bikeshare station sound suspiciously like amenities that will simply make the development more attractive for the well-heeled customers interested in its luxury condos. Customers who may or may not even live here, but may simply want these properties as investments.

Few Options To Meet Growing Needs

Facing a chorus of criticism from local housing advocates, Ozawa floated the idea last week of requiring the developer to purchase 16 low-income rental housing units near a planned rail station. Others suggested requiring the developer to kick in more to the affordable housing fund than the promised $2.4 million.

Both those ideas have merit, but the best plan would simply be to make developers follow the guidelines and include affordable units in their projects from the get-go.

Two years ago, a state housing study found Honolulu needed more than 11,000 new low-income rentals by 2020 to meet demand from residents who earn less than 140 percent of median income for this area. The challenge may be even steeper by now because of the strong growth in the number of fixed-income seniors.

Honolulu homelessness continues to rise, with a record 4,940 individuals counted in Oahu’s “point in time” homeless census in January. Statewide, Hawaii is under a state of emergency for homelessness, and nowhere in the state is the problem more pronounced than on this island.

Meanwhile, the mayor’s affordable housing plan, which he promised with great fanfare two years ago, has yet to be introduced to the City Council. Caldwell has proposed that large residential projects should be required to make a percentage of units affordable, but because developers don’t like that requirement, he hasn’t introduced a bill to make it a reality.

So, to sum up, the city has no affordable housing plan, an enormous need for affordable housing stock and a growing homeless population, but may be about to set a lousy precedent of letting developers off the hook for building affordable housing near rail stops.

The City Council is due to take up this matter again next week. Ozawa, Council Chair Ernie Martin and their colleagues should think long and hard about the message they’re sending with this closely watched first project under the city’s new permitting process. They should send it back to the drawing board until it makes a concrete contribution to making affordable housing available in Honolulu.

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