Editor’s note: Civil Beat asked candidates to answer some questions about where they stand on various issues and what their priorities will be if elected.
The following came from Robert Bunda, one of four candidates for Honolulu City Council District 2, which covers Mililani Mauka, Wahiawa, Mokuleia, Waialua, Haleiwa, Pupukea, Sunset Beach, Kahuku, Laie, Hauula, Punaluu, Kahana, Kaaawa, Kualoa, Waiahole and Kahaluu. The others are Heidi Tsuneyoshi, Choon James and Dave Burlew.
1. How do you think the city should pay for the operation and maintenance of rail once it’s built?
Opponents of rail consistently point to operation and maintenance costs as the most worrisome aspect of the project. The fear, especially in my district, is that property taxes could increase to meet this expense. I would argue against it. As part of an integrated rail/bus/Handi-Van transportation system, the operating costs of rail is a city responsibility but the benefits of rail spill over to the state as the largest public land owner along the corridor.
To appreciate the full impact of rail, it must be viewed not only as a public transportation system but as a game changing approach to affordable housing. Transient-oriented development (TOD) promotes a mix of residential and retail development that provides employment opportunities as well as housing along the corridor. This stimulates general excise tax revenue for the state as well as property tax revenue for the city. In addition to its many other benefits, TOD should be regarded as a long-term funding source to mitigate the cost of operation and maintenance of rail.
2. A recent survey found that homelessness remains a problem on Oahu. What should be done? Do you support an islandwide sit-lie ban? Why or why not?
It is all too obvious that homelessness is a growing problem on Oahu. It is also clear that we need to pursue long-term solutions, the most practical being an increase in the public housing inventory. We should also provide rapid re-housing and rental assistance for people who lack basic qualifications for such, especially families with nowhere else to go. Public-private partnerships and collaborative efforts by the city and state are proving successful in getting homeless families into shelters.
While we need to assist people who are in transition between life on the street and a safe place to call their own, it’s not just an issue of finding adequate shelter space. We must also provide intensive services to those with mental health and substance abuse issues. It is painfully apparent that random acts of violence against residents and visitors is likely to increase without such intervention. For this reason, I support an islandwide sit-lie ban. It has become a public health and safety issue and I place the safety of our residents over the refusal of mentally ill homeless people to accept the help that is offered to them.
3. Oahu has one of the most expensive housing markets in the country. What specific proposals do you have to make housing more affordable?
The lack of affordable housing is a chronic issue in our city. Although I support requirements to include a percentage of affordable units in new housing projects, I think we should also curb luxury developments until the inventory of affordable condominiums and homes approaches a more balanced ratio. But that alone won’t be enough.
A growing number of cities, including resort communities, are using community land trusts to deal with the skyrocketing costs of housing. Here in Hawaii, land banking has long been used to protect important agricultural and conservation resources. The use of land banking to address our affordable housing needs is a relatively new twist to an old idea. In this scenario the city or state government provides land for a project and retains ownership of the land. When the owner of a housing unit on the land wants to sell, the trust has the first right to repurchase the unit at a predetermined price, keeping the housing permanently affordable for low and moderate-income families.
To ensure the survival of Hawaii’s middle class, we need to curb real estate speculation that drives up the cost of owning a home and increases the property tax burden on homeowners.
4. Honolulu has some of the worst traffic congestion in the nation. Some see rail as part of the solution. What else should the city do to alleviate congestion?
Transit-oriented development should help relieve the pressure for development in rural areas. Focusing growth along the transit corridor will ease the stress on our roadways. A rail and bus system with park and ride facilities for rural commuters will provide alternatives that can also reduce traffic congestion.
On the North Shore, residents know the frustration of sitting in traffic that seems to go on forever. Tourists add to the congestion and chronic traffic delays from Haleiwa to Kahuku. I will work with the city Department of Transportation Services and the state Department of Transportation to devise a workable plan for traffic mitigation, especially during surf season.
The Laniakea impasse is an example of a traffic sore spot that has residents begging for a solution. I believe we should reinstall the parking barriers at Laniakea to provide immediate relief for residents until a permanent solution can be devised. Realistically, a highway realignment could take years. Crosswalks and guard rails have been dismissed as impractical or dangerous. The parking barriers should be reinstated as soon as legally possible.
I would also encourage city and state transportation departments to work together to develop common-sense solutions for other traffic trouble spots on the island.
5. Does the city need to boost its revenue? If so, how should that be done?
Presuming that TOD is of a scale that generates significant real property taxes, it could contribute greatly to city revenue. But the fact is, we’re already talking about TOD helping to pay for rail operation and maintenance. TOD can’t be expected to pay for everything. If it relieves taxpayers of the potential burden of paying for rail operations and maintenance it will be a huge benefit.
I believe the city should focus its spending on essential services and areas of greatest need while rationalizing spending in other areas. For long-term sustainability we must be able to live within our budget and not simply dream of boosting revenue so that we can spend more. I am not in favor of increasing taxes to boost revenue.
6. Illegal vacation rentals are proliferating and residents worry about overcrowded neighborhoods and other problems. Do you see this as a problem given Hawaii’s booming visitor industry, and what would you propose to do about it?
Illegal transient vacation units (TVUs) isn’t just a problem for Hawaii’s visitor industry. They are also a drain on the affordable home market. The city has known that fact nearly 30 years. But none of the regulatory and legislative attempts since the 1990s has proven successful at reining in the proliferation of TVUs.
Finding solutions will require a multifaceted approach. I would envision the creation of a Rapid Response Enforcement Program from the managing director’s office. The idea is to quickly deploy responses to complaints about illegal TVUs. There should be meaningful resources added in the budget for employee staff, including legal staff, to investigate permitting issues and legally enforce illegal activities.
I would establish an ordinance for identifying and producing evidence that a residence is being used illegally as a TVU. We might also enact an ordinance that allows advertisements to be used as evidence rather than use current law, which requires officials to actually catch owners or renters in the act. We can also create a hotline to report illegal activity, increase fines and penalties, and create real property tax classifications with higher rates for vacation rentals.
7. Hawaii’s public records law mandates that public records be made available whenever possible. And yet the cost for search and redaction is often prohibitively expensive and it often takes months for the records to be released. What would you do to improve our public records system?
Taxpayers have a right to know what their government is doing so I’m for full disclosure and transparency.
Hawaii administrative rules permit public agencies to charge $10 per hour to search their files for records, $20 per hour to review records, and 5 cents per page for copies. The agencies are free to waive some or all of the fees if the request is in the public interest.
That may sound reasonable, but in practice it’s virtually unworkable. Some agencies have received requests that they estimate would take dozens, hundreds, and even thousands of hours to satisfy. Faced with thousands of dollars in fees to acquire records, some media outlets have been forced to do without them. That has a dampening effect on the public’s right to know what is occurring in their government.
I understand the city is working on an automated system that will make it easier and more affordable to access records. Without knowing all the details of that system, I can say that I support such a system in principle. I would also support effective measures at the state level to improve access to documents.
8. What more should Honolulu be doing to prepare for the effects of climate change, including sea level rise and threats to the reefs?
I think we must start by acknowledging that we can’t stop climate change or beat the rising ocean, even if we had hundreds of billions of dollars at our disposal. Over the next 70 years, it is forecast that Hawaii will suffer a tremendous loss of land, homes, businesses and cultural sites to the rising sea. However, we can adapt to this change if we start today and put the time we have available to us to its best use.
The State’s 2017 “Hawaii Sea Level Rise Vulnerability and Adaptation Report” describes a difficult time ahead. The chief recommendation, which I support, is that we must view sustainable and resilient land use and community development as the key to our ability to adapt to sea level rise in generations to come.
The impact on Oahu is expected to be greater than all of the other islands combined due to the size of our population and extensive urbanization of vulnerable coastal areas. The report recommends that a land inventory be conducted to identify urban areas that could support “smart redevelopment” within existing urban boundaries that are a safe distance from the ocean.
9. What do you see as the most pressing issue facing your district? What will you do about it?
I believe the district has suffered because of friction between current and past council members and the mayor’s office. Differences on issues will always occur, but with the right leadership we can overcome those differences. We can start by addressing the most pressing issues that affect District 2 — traffic, homelessness, and property taxes. Since I’ve addressed traffic and homelessness, I’d like to offer my thoughts on property taxes.
Many residential property owners on the North Shore and in the region from Kaaawa to Kahuku will see their home values increase 12.1 percent and 13.4 percent, respectively, for the 2018 tax period. Whether the City Council decides to keep residential tax rates the same or increase them, some North Shore and Koolauloa residential property owners could see double-digit percentage increases in their property taxes.
Part of the problem is that people are buying up houses at exorbitant prices and converting them to vacation rentals. I would work with other council members and the city administration to tackle the vacation rental issue and avoid runaway property tax rate increases.