The need to increase the availability of housing that residents can afford has been the No. 1 campaign issue for most of the people running for office in Maui County.

Maui locator map

On top of selecting which candidates they think can best get that accomplished, Maui voters this year will also be asked to decide if their local government should have a standalone department dedicated to creating housing that residents can both “afford and attain.”

Maui has a Department of Housing and Human Concerns. With almost 160 employees, the department oversees a range of projects that include providing services for immigrants, running the county’s Office on Aging, tackling homelessness and supporting Maui’s Early Childhood Resource Center — on top of managing affordable housing programs.

The measure that will be on the ballot for the Nov. 8 election asks whether the county should split that department into two separate entities — a Department of Human Concerns and a new Department of Housing, which would be staffed with a Hawaiian Home Lands liaison and advised by a board made of housing policy and industry experts.

Developer Mike Atherton has been working for nearly two decades to build Waikapu Country Town on former sugarcane lands in central Maui.
Maui County this year entered into a partnership with a developer to build more homes in Waikapu that will be sold to residents at prices lower than the typical market rate. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2022

The proposal is one of 13 that voters are asked to consider as part of a once-in-a-decade process that puts Maui, Molokai and Lanai residents in charge of changing the way their local government works. Other proposals include whether the county should operate as a bilingual government and require more government transparency.

Of all of those proposals, creating the housing department is one of the most expensive, according to a recent county auditor report, which estimated it might cost an additional $2 million per year.

Critics have raised alarms about the costs that come with standing up a new department and questioned whether it’s needed when a housing division already exists within the current department.

But the measure has garnered widespread support among current and former county officials who say the change is long overdue.

“Some people may be a little skeptical because of the expense … It’s not cheap,” said Alice Lee, chair of the Maui County Council. “But in the long run, I believe it’s going to be worthwhile because in the past we’ve relied too much on private developers to provide our affordable housing.”

For decades, Maui families have struggled to make ends meet in a community where wages have failed to keep up with rising housing costs. Lee served as the director of the Department of Housing and Human Concerns for eight years starting in 1999, and said she was acutely aware of the problem even back then.

The issue affects the island’s workforce. “Many of them move away because they can’t afford homes here,” she said.

The Valley Isle needed more affordable homes for working families, but it was relying almost solely on private developers to build them, Lee said. Often, that meant housing projects were planned on undeveloped swaths of land — sometimes previously designated for agriculture — that lacked sewers and water lines. That increased the costs for developers to build there, and subsequently for residents buying or renting homes.

Residents also often protested the developments, not wanting to see open space developed.

At the same time, Lee said, the housing division had to compete against the other programs for staff and resources within the Department of Housing and Human Concerns. A separate housing department would solve that problem, she said.

The new department could focus on working with communities and other county departments to identify county-owned land and properties that already are close to businesses, roads, sewers and water lines. The government could serve as the developer, paying contractors to build homes to be sold or leased at affordable rates.

Wailea in south Maui
The typical cost of a home on Maui is around $1 million, hundreds of thousands of dollars more than just a couple years ago. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2022

Council member Yuki Lei Sugimura objects to the proposal, saying the county doesn’t need to take on the added costs of hiring a new director, deputy and the administrative and clerical support that comes with creating a whole new department. Plus, she said, the council already earmarked more money for the current housing division to hire more staff to tackle the demand earlier this year.

“Now is not the time to start brand new departments or incur costs that you don’t have to,” Sugimura said. “Our economy is fragile.”

Instead, she suggested county officials take a more active role in looking at known options to lower development costs: building the roads, sewers, sidewalks and water systems needed for construction.

“You’re not going to create more (housing) because you create another department and more expense,” Sugimura said.

Maui’s housing crisis spiraled out of control after the coronavirus pandemic struck in March 2020, spurring the island’s unemployment rate to jump to 35%. In the months that followed, an influx of out-of-state buyers — often offering cash, over the asking price — flocked to Maui, driving prices to record highs. The typical home price now stands around $1.15 million, which is about $375,000 higher than just two years ago, according to real estate data.

Construction of Kihei High School
Many longtime Maui families were priced out during the pandemic. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2022

Making homes “affordable” for Maui’s families often means renting or selling them for less than what it costs to build them.

The new county housing department would be charged with finding ways to finance projects so the final rent and sales costs are within residents’ financial reach. It will also be tasked with exploring other models of providing housing, such as community land trusts, which usually rely on organizations such as nonprofits that own the underlying land and sell or lease the buildings at affordable rates.

Dave DeLeon, who spearheaded the proposal while serving on the charter commission, said standing up the new department would help ensure that the officials in charge have the background and expertise needed to get homes built.

For decades, Maui has lagged behind, said DeLeon, who is now retired but worked for former Mayors Linda Lingle and Alan Arakawa before becoming the government affairs director for the Realtors Association of Maui. A 2019 state study, for example, estimated that Maui needs 10,000 homes by 2025 to keep up with demand.

“Can you imagine if you were in Northern California right now and your community didn’t have a fire department?” said DeLeon. “We’re under the same kind of crisis in housing, and we don’t have a housing department.”

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation and the Fred Baldwin Memorial Foundation.

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