Several state lawmakers are traveling to Singapore and Hong Kong next week to learn more about their approaches to affordable housing — one of Hawaii’s most vexing challenges.
“Hawaii has been in a housing shortage since at least as long as I have been alive,” said state Sen. Stanley Chang. “There have been a number of bills introduced every single year at the state and county levels to address this, but the problem has gotten worse, not better.”
The 36-year-old Chang, a Democrat and former Honolulu City Council member who represents a district stretching from Hawaii Kai to Diamond Head, believes possible solutions to affordable housing lie in what he calls the Singapore model.
The city-state at the southern tip of Malaysia faced a housing crisis from the 1940s through the 1960s, according to a bill introduced in the Hawaii Legislature this year.
Singapore’s housing and development board succeeded in building units that house 80% of the resident population. It’s estimated that 90% of those residents own their units.
“They do all this on an island less than half the size of Oahu and with a population of 5.5 million,” said Chang.
Singapore accomplishes this through government loans, subsidies and grants and, as Senate Bill 1 explains, because of “the use of money saved through a government-run mandatory savings program, residents are able to purchase residential units at an affordable price, including options to upgrade to a better living environment in the future.”
Chang said he recognizes that the state of Hawaii, with a population of 1.4 million, is run differently than Singapore, which has an autocratic form of government largely ruled by one family since its independence in 1965.
But Chang said he is not looking for Hawaii to adopt a “carbon copy” of Singapore’s model.
“I don’t think the voters or the Legislature have the appetite to increase taxes and provide large taxpayer subsidies for housing,” he said. “I am not saying not to do that, but if we want to solve it, we are presently only creating one-third of the housing units we need.”
Chang will join the trip, which runs May 21-30, with Sens. Sharon Moriwaki of Oahu and Dru Kanuha of Hawaii Island and Rep. Tina Wildberger of Maui.
Chang said each participant is paying their own way — in his case, with his legislative allowance. Chang said campaign funds can also be used for such expenses, although he is not doing that. He said he was unsure how others are paying for the trip.
All four lawmakers are Democrats. Last week, Rep. Gene Ward, a Republican representing Hawaii Kai, complained to House Speaker Scott Saiki about House members being “disallowed” from joining senators and local developers on the housing tour.
“Our working families are struggling to pay the rent and own a home, and it is the responsibility of lawmakers to find creative solutions to help our constituents,” Ward said in a press release. “The speaker of the House is denying us that opportunity.”
Carolyn Tanaka the House Director of Communications, said Saiki “will refrain” from comment. House Chief Clerk Brian Takeshita said that Saiki “is not approving any House member’s use of House funds for this trip. They could use other non-House funds (i.e., personal), but I’m not aware of anyone doing that.”
Richard Rapoza, Senate spokesman, said senators could use legislative allowances or campaign funds.
Chang said several members of the Ige administration and various county officials are also part of the delegation, which will total about 40 people. Hawaii News Now is also sending a reporter.
Chang’s bill, which had the support of several senators including Majority Leader J. Kalani English and Ways and Means Committee Chairman Donovan Dela Cruz, died midway through the 2019 session.
SB 1 called for establishing the ALOHA homes program under the Hawaii Housing Finance and Development Corp. “to facilitate the development of low-cost homes for sale to Hawaii residents on state-owned and county-owned land near rail stations of the Honolulu rail transit system, to be known as the urban redevelopment district.”
Among other things, SB 1 would have allowed the HHFDC to sell the leasehold interest in residential condominiums located on state lands for lease terms of 99 years. Gov. David Ige supported a similar proposal.
While the bill, which carries over to the 2020 legislative session, did not pass, Chang noted that another measure — this one requiring the HHFDC to study and come up with a plan to implement an ALOHA homes program — is now on the governor’s desk awaiting his consideration.
Chang is hopeful that House Bill 820 will be signed and that “some bright minds” can begin working on the concept. A report would be delivered to the Legislature before the next session.
Chang visited Singapore last year and also Vienna, Austria, another city he says is known for its model approach to affordable housing.
“We want to kick the tires and ask tough questions,” Chang said of the May trip. “We want to ask housing experts and urban planners what has been done to better understand our own housing shortage.”
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