The top four Democrats in the race for lieutenant governor have all said that affordable housing is one of the top issues – if not the top issue – facing Hawaii today.

Some of their proposals overlap, such as cutting through government red tape and directing more state funds toward housing projects.

But their specific proposals differ, and their approaches to the housing crisis also reveal how each candidate would approach the job of the lieutenant governor. It’s a position that gained more prominence after Lt. Gov. Josh Green took the reins of the state’s Covid-19 response and demonstrated an LG could be effective at shaping policy.

Kaimuki homes along Sierra Drive and Wilhelmina Rise.
The top Democratic candidates for lieutenant governor all say affordable housing is the number one issue facing the state. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Sylvia Luke would use the relationships she built in the Legislature and in state government during her time as a lawmaker to shepherd proposals through the State Capitol and propose new ideas for departments and agencies.

Ikaika Anderson would push ideas out to the community first. Even if the governor rejects his plans initially, he said he would still do much of the leg work to get an idea off the ground before coming back to the governor again.

Keith Amemiya would defer to the governor and instead work on implementing the governor’s plans on housing and other issues.

Sherry Menor-McNamara would try to reach consensus among government officials, residents, businesses and other stakeholders – all groups she would also rely on to help generate ideas and new proposals. She emphasized working with the private and nonprofit sectors to look for solutions.

A recent Civil Beat/Hawaii News Now poll shows Luke leading the field with 20% of likely Democratic primary voters followed by Anderson at 14%, Amemiya at 10% and Menor-McNamara at 7%.

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But the race is still up for grabs. Almost half of the registered voters polled aren’t sure who to vote for.

All the candidates by now are airing ads in some format. Luke has led the money race with a campaign war chest of about $800,000 and enjoyed support from large public and private labor unions.

But Anderson recently picked up an endorsement from Be Change Now, a super PAC that has financial backing from the construction industry. It’s the same group that pushed Green to the LG’s office with over $1 million in advertisements.

Sylvia Luke

Luke said she’s hopeful the next governor would allow her to take the lead on the state’s housing initiatives and work directly with state agencies to move projects forward.

Luke wants to close loopholes that allowed developers and condo owners to profit off of what should be affordable housing units. Luke points to 801 South Street, where dozens of unit owners turned a profit on what should have been workforce housing units.

The state agency in charge of overseeing development in much of Kakaako, the Hawaii Community Development Authority, has rules that restrict buyers from selling affordable units between five to 10 years after purchase. The length of time depends on a buyer’s income level.

Luke is proposing additional requirements for developers and buyers in an effort to lower the cost of housing and keep units affordable.

Sylvia Luke wants to close loopholes that allow developers and buyers to take advantage of state subsidized housing. Ku‘u Kauanoe/Civil Beat/2022

Under her proposal, developers who tap into the state’s Dwelling Unit Revolving Fund to help cover infrastructure costs for new developments would need to agree to lower the price of their units to account for the state subsidy.

Buyers would also need to agree to not sell those low-priced units for a fixed number of years. If they do, any profits they make would go back to the state to fund more housing units.

Such a program and series of agreements would require coordination between agencies in charge of funding and developing housing, developers and state lawmakers.

Luke plans to use her connections at state agencies like the Hawaii Housing Finance and Development Corp. and the HCDA to push through those new rule changes.

“I know what they do, and I have worked with them. And I gained their trust where I can make inquiries. It’s not as if they needed to bring me up to speed on what’s going on. We can hit the ground running,” Luke said.

Luke said she would also work directly with developers to get their housing applications processed as well as state agencies to vet applicants in an effort to spend housing funds quicker.

“We can hit the ground running.” — Sylvia Luke

She would also use her relationships at the Legislature to secure more funds for housing. Luke spent most of the last decade as the chair of the powerful House Finance Committee, which makes major decisions on agency budgets and other state policies. She was also a major player in the House’s ruling coalition alongside Speaker Scott Saiki.

“I’m pretty confident I will continue to have that relationship with the Legislature and show results working with the agencies,” Luke said.

Ikaika Anderson

Anderson also wants to take the lead on housing initiatives on behalf of the next governor.

Anderson said his office would conduct a study to identify underutilized state lands that could be used to develop affordable housing. Under his proposal, the state would allow a developer to build on those lands to eliminate the cost of acquiring new parcels.

In return, the developer would need to set aside any units built on those lands for people earning 100% area median income or below. In Hawaii, that’s defined as a family of four earning $113,300 a year.

Developers in the past have complained about requirements to build affordable units as doing so eats into their profits. But Anderson said removing the cost of land would also remove one of the largest costs for developers.

“The need for a higher profit margin diminishes when the state provides the land. This isn’t providing the developer with low-cost land, it’s providing the developer with no-cost land,” he said.

Reserving units for those making 120% AMI or below is also an option, Anderson said.

Honolulu City Council Chair Ikaika Anderson Bill 89 85.
Ikaika Anderson wants to put underutilized state lands to use. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

The proposal is similar to a bill the Legislature took up in 2020, although Anderson’s income requirements are lower. The measure failed after the coronavirus pandemic began and the State Capitol closed.

What if the Legislature declines his proposals?

“Workforce housing and homelessness are huge priorities for the people of Hawaii. I’m not even going to get into that,” Anderson said.

Anderson said that he would work directly with communities that could be affected by proposals and projects to identify potential roadblocks or concerns early on in the planning process. He hopes that could help avoid tensions in communities that feel they were not properly consulted.

“I’ve learned by looking at other projects that did not start at the community level, and I want to avoid their mistakes,” Anderson said.

He would take the same community approach when approaching the Legislature or county councils and discuss ideas with area lawmakers first.

And even if the next governor doesn’t allow Anderson to take the lead on housing for the state, Anderson said he would work on his ideas anyway.

“This isn’t providing the developer with low-cost land, it’s providing the developer with no-cost land.” — Ikaika Anderson

For example, if the governor doesn’t allow Anderson to lead a study on underutilized state parcels, he said his office could still access the state’s land inventory to look into those properties. Then, he would come back to the governor with a report on his findings.

“I would still go and do the legwork,” Anderson said.

Keith Amemiya

Amemiya has a wide range of housing proposals including beefing up county permitting departments, finding state lands suitable for housing developments, and investing in infrastructure to support more housing units.

But Amemiya said specifics for those ideas would need to be worked out with the governor.

“I’d like to have a role in addressing the housing crisis but it would be premature for me to give specifics without talking to the next governor,” Amemiya said.

Although he would defer to the governor on housing issues and plans, Amemiya said he would like to work with the Legislature to secure more funding for housing developments and infrastructure.

Honolulu Mayoral candidate Keith Amemiya.
Keith Amemiya has housing ideas, but would defer to the next governor’s plans. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

He noted that staffing shortages may have caused delays in processing permits at the city Department of Planning and Permitting. Amemiya floated the idea of providing the DPP with state funds to hire more staff.

The department has been rocked by multiple cases of employees accepting bribes to approve building permits faster. A handful have been charged by federal prosecutors.

Amemiya also supports having more workforce housing units at the site for Aloha Stadium in Halawa. The mix of housing units on that site has not been determined yet.

“The governor is the No. 1 elected official in the state, and I believe in the chain of command.” — Keith Amemiya

Like Anderson, Amemiya also wants an agency in state government to identify state lands that have not been utilized and could be put toward new housing developments. When asked if his office would take up that task, Amemiya said he would defer to the governor.

He sees himself as someone who would work to implement the governor’s plans even if they conflict with his own.

“The governor is the No. 1 elected official in the state, and I believe in the chain of command. I’m confident that whoever the next governor is will agree that affordable housing is a crisis that needs to be addressed,” he said.

Sherry Menor-McNamara

Getting over regulations for housing and ensuring that families transitioning out of public housing have enough money to sustain themselves are two of Menor-McNamara’s housing proposals.

Menor-McNamara, the president of the Chamber of Commerce Hawaii, said she would look to nonprofits to find resources for those families transitioning out of public housing.

Chamber of Commerce Hawaii President CEO Sherry Menor-McNamara2. 7 june 2016.
Sherry Menor-McNamara wants to bring ideas generated by the community to the governor’s office. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2016

To cut through government red tape, she would consult with the building industry to identify specific regulations that could be holding up housing development.

And when it comes to getting the state Department of Hawaiian Home Lands to build more housing units, the chamber president said she would engage the Hawaiian community, people that could be affected by new developments, and those that could benefit.

Menor-McNamara, who leads an organization that advocates for more than 2,000 businesses in the state, sees herself as a sort of community convener, one that brings together various stakeholder groups to find solutions.

But so far, she’s light on specific plans to implement her policy ideas.

“The lieutenant governor and the governor should not have their own plans to move forward because if that happens they are not working as a partnership.” — Sherry Menor-McNamara

“The lieutenant governor and the governor should not have their own plans to move forward because if that happens they are not working as a partnership,” Menor-McNamara said. “That’s not fair to the people, if they are on separate lanes and not getting things done.”

Instead, Menor-McNamara said she would gather ideas from businesses, government agencies and communities in the islands to present to the governor. If the governor rejects those proposals, Menor-McNamara would still advocate for her position, but would defer to the governor.

“Ultimately whatever the governor decides, I’ll need to support,” she said.

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