Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell called Thursday for cooperation from other governments, the private sector, unions and nonprofits to help the city “turn the corner” on its affordable housing shortage.

“If we don’t change the course we have been on for a long period of time, this island becomes a de facto gated community,” the mayor warned during his fifth State of the City speech, delivered in the courtyard of Honolulu Hale.

And while his focus was heavily on affordable housing, the mayor said solving that problem is key to solving the crisis of homelessness.

Mayor Kirk Caldwell Honolulu Hale. 16 feb 2017
Mayor Kirk Caldwell called for cooperation to help Honolulu “turn the corner” on building affordable housing. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

He also called for completing the full 20 miles and 21 stations of the Honolulu rail project. He said a vibrant transportation infrastructure linked to a course correction in housing would be a “big game-changer” that could lead to “the strongest, longest-lasting foundation for our economy and our culture.”

The mayor’s ideas are detailed and ambitious. They call for developers to not only build more affordable housing units, but make them more affordable to own or rent. 

And Caldwell wants new units to remain affordable for three times as long as the current requirement.

The mayor’s proposals call for incentivizing the private sector to build more affordable units by waiving fees for things like sewer hookups.

Mayor Kirk Caldwell with Governor Ige Honolulu Hale. 16 feb 2017
Gov. David Ige was seated next to the mayor prior to his speech. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Working with the City Council, city-owned land would be leased to developers for affordable housing projects.

Here is more about the mayor’s plan, provided to the media in brief bullet points before his speech:

  • All affordable units to be built must remain affordable for 30 years, whether for sale or rent, as opposed to only 10 years as currently required.
  • Department of Planning application and permit fees would be waived to encourage developers to build more affordable units.
  • More than $100 million in private activity bonds would be made available to help developers raise funds.
  • The city would lease land at nine locations stretching from Kapolei Parkway to Ala Moana Center for housing developments.

“We want the private sector to build, not government,” said Caldwell.

What About The GET?

The mayor can be said to have the wind at his back.

He was re-elected by a respectable vote margin in November, and he has majority support at the Honolulu City Council led by Chairman Ron Menor.

And state House and Senate committees recently approved separate bills to extend Oahu’s rail tax surcharge, as the mayor and Council want.

Potentially huge headwinds could still blow toward Honolulu Hale from the Capitol, however.

Should a general excise tax measure fall short of what Caldwell wants — ideally, extending the surcharge into perpetuity and lowering the state’s administrative fee on the tax — the Federal Transit Administration could choose to have its $1.55 billion support of the rail line returned.

It’s not clear whether the Legislature will have a compromise bill to send to Gov. David Ige by the FTA’s April 30 deadline for a new rail funding plan.

But if the legislation is to the city’s liking, the Caldwell administration could float bonds to secure a financial commitment for completing the project.

One possible good sign for Caldwell: the governor, House Speaker Joe Souki and Senate Vice President Michelle Kidani were among those in attendance for the mayor’s speech.

Caldwell re-emphasized that the rail route must go all the way to Ala Moana Center, as planned, rather than stop at Middle Street or Aloha Tower. And rail, he said, can’t survive without development around rail stations.

The mayor closed by directing the topic back to affordable housing.

He said he wants to commit the city to facilitating the approval of at least 800 affordable units every year of his second term, and added he will ask the state to help make it happen.

Information provided by the Caldwell administration regarding affordable housing:

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