In his first State of the City address on Monday, Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi laid out a vision for Honolulu that included a new approach to homelessness, promoting affordable housing and reviving Chinatown.

But he acknowledged that his ideas must confront the reality that the city is strapped for cash. 

The $2.9 billion operating budget plan relies on leaving many unfilled positions vacant and deferring payment of retirees’ future health benefits. And the capital budget has been reduced by about $400 million.

“Our team has not been focused on what we don’t have,” he said. “We’re focused on getting things done with what we do have.”

State of Honolulu Speech. Mayor Rick Blangiardi gives his State of Honolulu speech.
Mayor Rick Blangiardi’s budget cuts funds from housing and homelessness services at the same time he says he’s trying to find new ways to address the issues. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

To address homelessness, Blangiardi has proposed expanding the Mayor’s Office of Housing, which coordinates with other agencies and does not provide direct services, from two employees to four. He also wants to rename it the Office of Housing and Homelessness. 

“That means more resources and more solutions to tackle this crisis,” he said.

In his remarks, Blangiardi noted that the city stands to gain 155 affordable units at the Halewaiolu Senior Residences, a “frequently stalled” project in Chinatown that the mayor said is “back on the table.”

“We are determined to get it built,” he said. 

He also said he hopes to incentivize private development of affordable housing with Bill 1. The legislation could allow the issuance of grants of up to $10 million to developers who build units targeted at residents making less than the area median income. 

“With the unsheltered homeless population now exceeding the sheltered, we need new ideas and new vision and we are committed to the cause,” Blangiardi said. “The same old tired solutions to our affordable housing crisis is clearly not the answer. It hasn’t worked for 30 years.” 

The mayor budgeted only $300,000 for Bill 1 projects this fiscal year, according to Communications Director Tim Sakahara. That would cover incentives for only 20 to 30 units. Experts say Oahu needs tens of thousands.

Blangiardi spoke briefly about the Honolulu rail project, which has a new estimated price tag of $12.4 billion.

“Our top priority is to close the funding gap,” he said. 

HART is “instituting fiscal responsibility” by identifying inefficiencies, canceling redundant contracts and eliminating positions.

Honolulu City Council chair Tommy Waters v3
Honolulu City Council chair Tommy Waters has already questioned some of Mayor Blangiardi’s budget cuts. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

The mayor mentioned a few other priorities in his State of the City address, including cleaning up Chinatown.

“We already have projects planned that will improve lighting, repave roadways and fix areas that are prone to flooding,” he said. “I could say a lot more, but I will leave it at that.”

He also emphasized his desire to install much-needed technological upgrades to city departments including Planning and Permitting, Customer Services and the Liquor Commission.

“In team sports there is a saying: Great things happen when no one cares who gets the credit,” Blangiardi, a former football coach, said. “Our team brings that mentality to the city because we will make our island better, together.”

The mayor expressed sympathy for residents impacted by catastrophic flooding in Haleiwa last week. He said, though, in a post-address press conference that his budget doesn’t include any new funding for flood prevention or mitigation.

The city stands to benefit from nearly $400 million from the American Rescue Plan, the federal COVID-19 stimulus act. However, the mayor said it’s unclear when the money will arrive, and he hasn’t given much indication of where he plans to spend it other than aiming to help “the neediest” residents.

The mayor said $114 million in federal funds is on the way for rent and utility payments. More information on the program will be shared in the next month, the mayor said. 

To tackle climate change, Blangiardi said in his remarks that Honolulu is “shifting from talking about policy to doing something about it.” He said the city is investing in drainage and flood management improvements, designing a new tree farm at Patsy Mink Central Oahu Regional Park and convening an interdepartmental “One Water” panel to address climate adaptation, among other measures.

In budget hearings that began last week, City Council members have already raised questions about Blangiardi’s ideas.

Members expressed concern that proposed reductions cut too deeply and will starve the city of resources when what’s needed is an investment.

“In tough economic times, the government typically spends, especially on construction,” Council Chair Tommy Waters said. “To me, it’s a perfect opportunity to hire people, get them off the bench and get them working.”

Despite the mayor’s vow to take a new approach to homelessness, his budget proposal reflects cuts to programs. The Community Based Development Division in the Department of Community Services would be slashed by 17% in Blangiardi’s budget. That division administers several programs serving homeless and low-income people.

Funding for homeless services is set to be reduced, under the mayor’s plan. Courtesy: Bob Jones

And in the Department of Land Management, which is tasked with acquiring and developing properties for affordable housing, the capital budget has been zeroed out entirely. 

Waters raised concerns about that during a budget hearing on Monday. 

“You’ve got zero. There’s no money in your CIP,” he said, referring to the capital improvement plan. “So when you talk about looking to acquire properties, how are you going to do it without any CIP?”

Scott Hayashi, director of land management, said his department will work with other departments that are funded and will formulate a strategic plan.

“We’ve got to build places for these people to live,” Waters said. “That is a priority for our council and for the mayor because it’s not getting any better.”

The mayor’s Office of Climate Change, Sustainability and Resiliency is set to take a 22% cut under Blangiardi’s proposal, which raised eyebrows at the City Council.

“When I see a 22% cut in your office, I get worried, that’s all,” Waters said.

Matthew Gonser, who directs the climate change office, assured Waters that the cuts were mostly to consulting services and that the office is able to continue its work at the proposed funding level.

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