Earning $69,000 a year means even the Honolulu City Council feels pressed by high housing costs and taxes.

The newly composed Honolulu city council, which has been in office together for a little over a month, is being asked to try to resolve the city’s most intractable problem: How low wages, high property taxes and high housing costs make life on Oahu so difficult.

As it turns out, they understand the issues all too well.

Most of the council members are trying to cope with the same financial and life stresses as everyone else, according to a recent survey of the council members by Civil Beat and city financial disclosures. Several of them also talked frankly about their struggles making ends meet at a recent council meeting.

Newly elected council members enter into their first official meeting at Honolulu Hale. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

City council members earn about $69,000 a year (Council Chair Tommy Waters earns about $77,000), unchanged since 2019, for work weeks that can extend up to 60 hours, including council and committee meetings, constituent outreach, conferences with city and state officials and attendance at up to five neighborhood board meetings monthly.

Even with that daunting schedule, however, some have considered getting part-time jobs as grocery store stocking clerks or coffee-shop baristas to stay in the black. That’s because the annual median income for a single person in Hawaii is $79,300.

Most are dependent on their city council jobs as their major source of employment.

Five are single and four are married. Radiant Cordero’s husband is a mechanic for the U.S. Navy, Calvin Say’s wife is a Department of Education retiree and Andria Tupola’s husband works in law enforcement.

Five own homes, all with mortgages. City council member Calvin Say has several homes, which has been a subject of controversy in the past. Four council members live in apartments. That’s about consistent with the 55 percent homeownership rate in Honolulu.

Five of them have kids — ranging in age from elementary school to adulthood, which introduces a dizzying array of new potential costs every month, including whether to send them to private or public school. Val Okimoto is a single mother of two, who are enrolled in Hawaii public schools.

Matt Weyer, 35, raised in Waikele by a single mother, became a lawyer, community planner and domestic violence prosecutor, but is still paying off more than $100,000 in student debt, according to his financial disclosure.

A few have retirement income, including Esther Kiaaina, 59, who receives a pension from her federal employment, including her service as Assistant Secretary for Insular Affairs in the Interior Department and as legislative staff to U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka and U.S. Rep. Ed Case. Another is Calvin Say, 71, who receives Social Security and a state pension for his four decades as a Hawaii state representative, including serving from 1999 to 2012 as Speaker of the House.

At least two have side income as political consultants, including Tyler Dos Santos-Tam, a former chief of the state Democratic party, who coordinated President Biden’s campaign in Hawaii, and Andria Tupola, a former state representative and Republican gubernatorial candidate in 2018.

Some hold second jobs. Say has an import business and Augie Tulba works as a morning talk-show radio host and does comedy gigs when he can.

Members of the 2023 Honolulu City Council. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Reflecting Hawaii’s Diversity

Demographically, they match up with island residents in other ways as well, representing Honolulu’s diverse racial mix. Council members Esther Kiaaina and Waters are native Hawaiian. Say is Chinese. Okimoto is Filipino, Japanese and Caucasian, Dos Santos-Tam is Chinese, Filipino and Portuguese, Tupola is Hawaiian, Samoan and Caucasian, Tulba is Portuguese and Filipino and Radiant Cordero is Filipino and Chinese. Weyer is white.

Dos Santos-Tam is the first announced member of the LGBTQ community to be elected to the council.

Almost all grew up in Hawaii or spent significant amounts of time here and come from families with deep roots in the state. This influences their thinking about the state’s problems.

Okimoto, a former special education teacher who was raised on Kauai, has a big network of friends and relatives as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, widely known as the Mormon church. She is worried about senior citizens she knows, people on fixed incomes, who are being pressured by high property taxes, based on ever-rising housing prices.

Waters, whose teenage son sat by his side at the city inauguration on January 3, told Civil Beat when he was running for re-election last year that all of his five siblings raised with him on Oahu had been forced to move to the mainland because of the high cost of living in Hawaii.

“I am scared to death at the prospect that my daughter and son will not be able to call Hawaii home due to being priced out,” Waters wrote.

Potential To Transform The City Skyline

Six of the nine council members ran for office pledging to increase the stock of affordable housing.

Consequently, they are so far supportive of projects that will transform the island’s skyline and in the case of a 43-story high-rise to be built in Moiliili, on Kapolani Boulevard called Kuilei Place, giving developers generous relief from permitting expenses and zoning rules.

Among other projects that appear to have been given a green light are a set of 18-story and 19-story residential towers in Waipahu called Keawalau; a 17-story senior high-rise in Chinatown; a 27-story structure in Salt Lake called Kahoapili.

The 43-story development, Kuilei Place, is planned for the east end of Kapiolani Boulevard. (Hawaii News Now)

The developer of Kuilei Place has told city officials that of the 1,005 units, 40% will be sold at market rate. About 60% will sell at prices affordable to households that earn between $104,500 and $158,600 for a family of four, which represents the range between 80% and 140% of median income in Hawaii.

The units will sell from $370,000 to $1.25 million, according to the project’s sales manager.

Those income figures are considerably higher than council members earn for what is being termed an “affordable” project.

Some of the criticisms over the Moiliili project wounded her, Cordero told the council.

“We are sitting here, being accused of being bought out … we are struggling as well,” said Cordero, who lives in an apartment, and who told Civil Beat when she ran in 2020 that her first priority in office was helping to create housing stability.

She said that it is hard to make ends meet on the council salary, which has left her trying to figure out what to do to afford to stay in a job that makes it hard to live a real life, including doing things like having children. She said she has thought of getting a job stocking grocery shelves at night but worries that she would be too tired to get to work at Honolulu Hale in the morning and do the council job effectively.

It wouldn’t be the first time Cordero has had to juggle several jobs, including stints at the Royal Hawaiian and Sheraton hotels and in grocery stores, before she went to work as a legislative aide for State Rep. Joey Manahan and then followed him to the Honolulu City Council. Well-known to his constituents, Cordero replaced him when he stepped down due to term limits.

Tulba said the extreme difficulty of affording to live in Hawaii is one of the reasons he ran for office. He said he does it though it is hard to juggle his morning talk show and also do gigs that produce extra revenue.

“I’ve still got to support my family, make sure I pay my bills, got to make sure I pay all the colleges that my kids went to,” Tulba said. “It is tough; it is tough.”

It makes it hard to hear criticisms residents throw at him, he said.

“It’s almost crazy, crazy,” Tulba said, when the truth is, he said, that “we are doing our best.”

The topic of council pay arose during a confirmation hearing on Jan. 23 for Rebecca Soon, a new member of the Honolulu Salary Commission.

Kiaaina was the one who raised the topic of council salaries to Soon at the hearing, saying that council members were being paid as though it were a part-time job when it is clearly a full-time job.

Waters said that during recent discussions of rental relief assistance in the city, he had realized that council salaries are so low that members might qualify for rental assistance or relief.

Soon agreed that people earning an income level of a council member would be eligible for rental assistance, at least for some programs.

“I see how personal that is,” she said. “Our own city workers, including our elected officials, should be able to afford to live in the communities we serve,” she said.

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