The Maui mayoral race has been defined by candidates’ sweeping promises to boost the availability of housing that local residents can afford and stop the exodus of longtime families who’ve been priced out.

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But the two candidates who want to lead the county’s $1 billion government have vastly different ideas on how to get the job done.

Mayor Michael Victorino, who’s running for a second four-year term in the Nov. 8 general election, wants to spur the construction of new homes by removing regulatory barriers and having the county pay for roads, sewers and water lines that otherwise drive up housing costs. His goal is to help first-time buyers and renters find “the right home.”

Retired Judge Richard Bissen, on the other hand, has a list of short-, medium- and long-term goals. Among his ideas: Start by making it easier for homeowners to build additional cottages or ohana units on their properties, then pursue partnerships with the owners of commercial buildings to repurpose abandoned structures into apartments. Then, in the years to come, he wants to tap federal funding to pay for infrastructure needed to develop large-scale housing projects.

Affordable apartments near the Kulamalu Town Center. The two Maui mayoral candidates have different plans for housing. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

Whatever their plans, the stakes are high.

Since the last mayoral election in 2018, the typical price of a Maui home has soared to $1.15 million, a nearly $440,000 increase driven in part by a flood of out-of-state buyers who flocked to the islands during the pandemic. Unless something changes, many residents fear the diaspora of Maui’s generational families will continue, disrupting the fabric of the community.

“What we have now is a market system … the highest bidder gets the housing,” said Stan Franco of Stand Up Maui, a nonprofit that advocates for affordable housing. “And if we continue doing that, we will continue to lose our people just because they cannot afford to live here.”

Homes under construction in Kula. Experts say political will is needed to create more affordable housing. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

Maui’s current housing crisis is decades in the making. But the situation spiraled out of control in 2020, when more than a third of the island’s workers lost jobs after the pandemic struck. That same year, 70% of homes sold on Maui went to owners who didn’t plan to live in them full time, such as investors and vacation homeowners, an analysis by a Hawaii Appleseed researcher found.

Since then, the Maui County Council made drastic changes in hopes of spurring more affordable housing, including by raising taxes on investment homes and vacation rentals to put a total of $58 million into the county’s affordable housing fund. But the council members just control the purse strings and make county laws; it’s the mayor — and the county administration as a whole — who are responsible for turning that policy and money into action.

“We need the political will to do this,” said Franco.

If elected to a second term, Victorino said he wants to continue healing from the pandemic’s economic devastation and build on the momentum gained in his first term.

Since taking office, he said at least 1,400 housing units were built in Maui County and another 742 are currently under construction. Plus, there’s another 4,500 “in the pipeline,” he said, which include projects like Pulelehua, a new community planned in West Maui, and the Waikapu Country Town, a development of 1,400 homes that the county is building a wastewater treatment plant for in exchange for more homes sold below market rates.

But it still could be years before Maui families get keys to the homes in the pending projects, so Victorino said his administration is currently doing a comprehensive review of the government’s rules that might slow down construction, with a particular focus on zoning. Some of the policies go back to the 1960s and 1970s, he said, and were never “totally vetted out.”

Mayor Michael Victorino says his administration is reviewing county regulations that might slow construction. 

“We’re going to make sure that these are ready so when my next term starts, we’re able to bring it out to the council and to the public and be able to make those systemic changes within the first five months of my administration,” Victorino said.

He also wants the county to focus on spurring a wide array of new housing — without adding to sprawl — by changing rules to allow for taller apartment buildings and smaller lot sizes for cottages and other small homes.

Regardless of who the next mayor is, Maui County residents this year will also have the chance to shape the future of the government’s role in housing by voting on whether to split up the county’s Department of Housing and Human Concerns and instead create a standalone housing department, with a focus of creating housing that local families can “afford and attain.”

Victorino said he supports that proposal and hopes the department could take on the role of the county’s “housing czar.” His administration hasn’t created such a role yet.

“I support the bifurcation of Housing from Human Concerns,” Victorino said. “I would have done that when I first came in, but I felt at that time, we were not ready.”

In recent years, the construction of affordable rental projects has ramped up in Maui County. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

The mayor’s challenger, however, has different ideas. At this point in time, Bissen said he doesn’t see the justification to spend an estimated $2 million to create a standalone housing department. Instead of taking on the additional administrative costs that come with creating an entirely new department, he would rather put more resources into the existing Housing Division, hire more staff and consider choosing leaders for the existing department who have expertise in housing, he said.

If elected, Bissen said he would hire staff that report directly to him who are tasked with serving as the liaison — or “resident expert” — for the community’s most pressing issues, like homelessness, water, energy and affordable housing.

“You would have somebody actually accountable,” Bissen said.

Retired Judge Richard Bissen wants to improve departmental accountability if elected. 

That staffer would be responsible for helping him move forward with his three-tiered approach to easing Maui’s housing shortage.

First, Bissen said, he wants the government to begin an inventory of lands across Maui County that are owned by the county, state and private landowners to identify the best places to build — where development would actually be supported by the communities around it. Depending on what the inventory discovers, the county could pursue swapping or buying land that’s most promising.

In the meantime, Bissen wants to make it drastically easier for Maui’s existing homeowners to build accessory dwelling units, or ADUs, which are smaller cottages or apartments that can be built on properties otherwise zoned for single-family houses. He wants the county to create pre-approved ADU floor plans that homeowners could tap as long as they’re building them on properties with existing water or sewer hookups.

Then, in the midterm, Bissen said, he’d use the county’s inventory of lands to identify commercial spaces — like strip malls, the abandoned Safeway or Sports Authority in Kahului — where the county might be able to build apartments on top of retail spaces like grocery stores, doctors offices or restaurants. He said his administration will proactively approach the landowners and ask, “What are their plans?”

It’s cheaper to build in areas where there are already water and sewer lines, Bissen said. The county could then look to rent or sell those apartments to residents at affordable rates, or continue as the owner of the underlying land but sell or lease the buildings, similar to how the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands works.

A neighborhood in Pukalani within walking distance of schools and shops that was geared toward offering homes within residents’ financial reach when it was built about 15 years ago. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

Then in the long term, Bissen said he would like the county to tap federal infrastructure dollars to pay for water, sewer and road projects needed to support developing entirely new communities. He would also like to require that anyone buying into a county-subsidized subdivision would need to live in the home full time — a requirement that would stay with the property in perpetuity so they wouldn’t end up in the hands of investors or vacation homeowners.

“If you build 500 new affordable houses, but you sell 400 to people who move in from the mainland, what have you really done?” Bissen said.

Besides choosing who they think is best qualified to serve as mayor and whether the county should create a separate housing department, voters on Maui, Molokai and Lanai are also tasked with choosing representatives in all nine council seats. They’ll also weigh in on 13 proposals to change how their local government operates, including whether it should create new community water authorities and make it easier to access government records.

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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