Editor’s note: For Hawaii’s Nov. 8 General Election, 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 Luke Evslin, candidate for Kauai County Council. The other candidates for seven positions are Addison Bulosan, Bernard Carvalho, Felicia Cowden, Billy DeCosta, Fern Holland, Ross Kagawa, KipuKai Kuali’i, Lila Metzger, Nelson Mukai, Mel Rapozo, Roy Saito, Rachel Secretario and Shirley Simbre-Medeiros.

Go to Civil Beat’s Election Guide for general information, and check out other candidates on the General Election Ballot.

Candidate for Kauai County Council

Luke Evslin
Party Nonpartisan
Age 37
Occupation Co-owner of Kamanu Composites, schoolteacher
Residence Lihue

Website

Community organizations/prior offices held

Kauai County Council member 2018-2022; Hui O Mana Ka Puʻuwai adult paddling coach, 2012-2015; Island School paddling coach, 2017-current; treasurer and board member, Malama Huleʻia, 2015-2021; commissioner, Open Space, Public Access and Natural Resources Preservation Commission Fund, 2013-2014; member, Community Advisory Committee, Kauai General Plan Update, 2015-2016.

1. What is the biggest issue facing Kauai County, and what would you do about it?

The cost of housing is the most pressing issue facing Kauai. We all see the effects, from homelessness, to departing local families, to families forced to work multiple jobs.

Most of my work has focused on reducing the cost of housing. I’ve co-introduced legislation to:

  • Eliminate all fees for affordable accessory residential units (ARUs);
  • Provide Kauai homeowners with free septic systems;
  • Prohibit community covenants from restricting against additional units and long-term rentals;
  • Allow the construction of ARUs in the Lihue town core;
  • Reduce the building code requirements for tiny houses;
  • Eliminate minimum lot size restrictions for multi-family homes;
  • Allocate 2% of real property tax revenue annually toward affordable housing (still in process);
  • Create a tiered tax structure to allow us to increase tax rates on high-value vacant houses and vacation rentals to fund affordable housing and incentivize those units to convert to long-term rentals (still in process);
  • Increase the vacation rental property tax rate to disincenvitze vacation rentals and apply nearly all of the money raised to affordable housing (measure failed).

In the next term, I will continue to focus on infrastructure, zoning and tax policy similar to that outlined above to encourage housing for residents within and around our town cores.

2. In the last four years, Kauai’s north shore has endured two major weather events that have severed entire communities from jobs, schools, pharmacies, banks, doctors and other essential services for many months. Should this change the county’s approach to disaster preparedness, and if so, how?

While the community response to these storms was a powerful reminder of how we all come together in times of need, these events were also a tragic reminder that our infrastructure was built for a climate that no longer exists. And so we need to heed the call of scientists and recognize both that these events will happen with increasing regularity and that we need to take bolder action to reduce our carbon emissions.

Every land use decision has to be based around a future of rising seas and stronger storms. The county is currently developing a climate resilience and adaptation plan, which will include detailed policies to equitably retreat from rising seas and address how and where to build resilient infrastructure and housing.

While much of the work of increasing resilience for existing communities is inherently reactive, we also need to be proactive to ensure that future development is built to stay dry with 3-9 feet of sea level rise.

There is no avoiding the disastrous impacts of climate change, but we can avoid the worst possible scenarios by reducing our carbon emissions to zero as quickly as possible.

3. There are nearly 14,000 cesspools on Kauai that must be removed by 2050. With an average cost of $15,000 to $30,000 to convert to septic, many homeowners say making the transition is not affordable. How can the county help to jump-start cesspool replacements?

It’s vital that we help homeowners transition from cesspool to septic, aerobic treatment units or even sewer. Not only is it an environmental imperative, but because state law prohibits the counties from issuing building permits to homes with cesspools, the high price tag for conversion contributes to our housing crisis by being the primary barrier for many homes hoping to build additional ohana or rental units.

I co-introduced a bill in 2021 to create a county program that would take advantage of $1.2 million annually in Clean Water State Revolving Fund principal forgiveness loans (i.e. free money) from the State of Hawaii. The program will provide free septic systems to around 30 homeowners per year and is currently being developed by the county.

In addition to individual wastewater systems, we also need to be expanding sewer lines into existing neighborhoods. My top priority is to develop a financing model to expand sewer service into existing neighborhoods. For residentially zoned homes, access to a sewer line also means that they can build up to four homes per parcel — which will help homeowners pay off a mortgage with rental income or provide housing for their kids or aging parents.

4. Traffic is getting worse on the island of Kauai, and different regions face different challenges. What would be your approach to improve Kauai’s transportation problems?

Nearly all of our congestion is on state highways. And the state has been clear that they don’t have even close to the funding available to do the necessary roadway improvements. Plus, there is overwhelming evidence that road widening is not a long-term solution to congestion, as the extra capacity induces people to drive more — eventually returning to baseline congestion levels.

The root of our traffic problem is that Lihue has the majority of jobs on Kauai, but only a quarter of the island’s housing. So, a large portion of Lihue workers are forced to commute into and out of town — causing congestion on both sides of town.

By far the most important thing that the county can do to address this is to help enable more housing development in and around Lihue, to reduce the imbalance between jobs and housing. Ensuring that people who want to can find affordable housing near their jobs won’t solve congestion, but it will at least give individuals an option to avoid it.

While I do not think that it will cure congestion, we also need to work toward the Kauai bus operating on 30-minute intervals to give residents and visitors more options.

5. Do you feel the governor and Legislature appreciate the issues of your county, or are they too focused on Honolulu and Oahu?

While it’s really easy to point out failed policies and instances (like the Lihue Airport Master Plan) where state officials are out of touch — I think that the vast majority of government officials do appreciate the issues that we face here, and are working hard to solve them. I have to give Gov. Ige credit for many of the hard steps he took during the pandemic to keep us safe. While he certainly isn’t always a great communicator, from what I’ve seen, he is willing to listen and go back to the drawing board when necessary.

Tearing down programs, policies and individuals is easy. Building them is hard. The very large majority of the work of the Kauai County Council is independent of the state. So regardless of what our state officials are doing, it’s our job as council members to focus on areas that we do have discretion over and can make progress on, and not to get too distracted by areas over which we don’t have discretion. Which is part of why I put so much time and focus on zoning, infrastructure and property taxes.

6. For more than a year the median price for a single-family home on Kauai has topped $1 million. What would you do to help address the deficit of low-income, affordable and middle-class housing?

We need to build more homes in and around our existing towns. Every study on affordability includes increasing supply as a prerequisite for affordability. This is the first decade since statehood where home construction on Kauai has fallen far below our population growth — and it’s this lack of homes that is the driver of our exploding costs.

We need to put more money toward affordable housing to leverage private, state, and federal funds. The county is currently pursuing three large housing projects in Kilauea, Waimea and Eleele. We need the funding to make these happen.

We need to continually strive to make it easier for families to add on additional units for their parents, children or long-term renters.

We need to build the infrastructure for more townhouses and condos in Lihue. These are the only non-subsidized units that can be built within a truly affordable range for many young families.

We need to continue raising property taxes on vacant second homes and vacation rentals, which make up one in five homes here. An effective tax rate for these homes can incentivize them to convert to resident housing and help fund the construction of affordable housing.

7. Even as the Covid-19 pandemic winds down, local businesses are struggling to hire and retain workers, which has led to shortages of everything from grocery store cashiers and restaurant workers to teachers and school bus drivers. What, if anything, would you do to address this economic instability?

In my opinion, the most important thing we can do to address economic instability is to reduce the cost of housing. Part of the reason for our worker shortage is that you can’t afford a mortgage or market-rate rent as a teacher, cashier or restaurant worker. It also impacts entrepreneurship, as residents can’t take on the risk of starting a business if they’re struggling to pay their rent. And, we have a shortage even among higher-paying professions such as doctors and engineers because even if they can afford housing, there’s simply nothing available.

Please refer to questions 1, 6 and 10 to see what I am working on doing to address the problem.

8. Kauai’s landfill in Kekaha will soon run out of capacity and there’s still no timely plan in place to build a new one. What can the county council do to address what could become a garbage crisis for the island?

With the proposed Maalo landfill site rejected by the state Department of Transportation because of concerns around the impact of birds on our airport, the county is beginning the process of siting a new landfill. However, the process to site and build a new one is expected to take just as long — or slightly longer — than the lifespan of our existing landfill.

This is one of the most major issues that we face on Kauai. If we run out of room at the Kekaha landfill without a new landfill ready to go, we may be forced to temporarily ship our waste off island at incredible cost to taxpayers.

The answer is diversion, diversion, diversion. Construction of a materials recovery facility, curbside recycling, diverting commercial food waste to composting facilities, and a recycling facility for construction and demolition debris — all of these need to simultaneously be pursued to extend the life of our landfill long enough to enable the siting and construction of a new facility. And, by pursuing these, we can also save taxpayers money and reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.

9. Overtourism can degrade the environment, threaten biodiversity, contribute to wear and tear on infrastructure, generate traffic and disrupt neighborhoods. What more can be done to better manage the island’s tourism sector?

Kauai is already over-capacity for tourists. The county has no legal authority to enact an arrival fee or cap the number of visitors. The best tools that we have to achieve similar ends are through user fees, property taxes and zoning.

In 2020, I co-introduced a bill to give the county Parks Department the authority to charge tourists a fee to park at beach parks. The Parks Department is currently working on implementing the legislation for Black Pot, Lydgate and Poipu Beach Park.

During the budget process, I have repeatedly tried to increase the vacation rental property tax rate to equal the resort property tax rate — with nearly all of the revenue raised allocated toward affordable housing. While the measure has failed both times, I’m committed to try again next year.

While the primary intention for both measures is to raise much-needed money for infrastructure and housing, they are also important tools to increase the cost of traveling to Kauai to help regain some sense of balance.

Lastly, we need to be vigilant in our zoning powers to ensure that we are not adding any new resort zoning and to better regulate the vacation rental industry.

10. The coronavirus pandemic has exposed numerous flaws in Hawaii’s structure and systems, from outdated technology to economic disparity. If you could take this moment to reinvent Hawaii, to build on what we’ve learned and create a better state, a better way of doing things, what would you do? Please share One Big Idea you have for Kauai County. Be innovative, but be specific.

My primary goal on the Kauai County Council is to reduce the cost of housing while improving the quality of life on Kauai. Our Kauai General Plan, which largely contains the same goals, is 560 pages of policy guidance. To distill it into a single big idea: we need to allow more home construction to reduce home prices, but we need to do it in a way that retains the character of our towns, preserves agricultural land, minimizes traffic, provides new opportunities for getting around and helps control government spending.

To achieve this, we need to encourage development within our existing town cores — especially Lihue — by reducing the regulatory burden for infill development, by encouraging both commercial and residential development in close proximity, and by improving pedestrian infrastructure and connectivity. If we do it right, we can reduce the cost of housing, reduce carbon emissions, reduce inequality and reduce the amount of time we’re forced to sit in traffic.

For more detail, please check out my campaign website, which contains a comprehensive list of the 20-plus policies that I’ve introduced or co-introduced in pursuit of these aims. It also contains a detailed policy platform for moving forward.

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