Housing advocates worry about the bandwidth of local government to get the program going before it’s too late.

The federal government gave Maui County more than $8 million in 2021 to help residents pay off past-due mortgage bills and other housing-related debts, but the pandemic relief money has yet to reach the intended homeowners.

Maui County locator map

That’s because former Mayor Michael Victorino’s administration never put out the official request needed to find an organization willing to run the grant program for Maui.

Hawaii and Kauai counties had their programs up and running by the end of that year, and Honolulu followed suit in early 2022, disbursing their shares of the $50 million that the federal government gave the state.

“I’ve had senior citizens in my office crying because they have to be foreclosed upon because their homeowner’s association fees are beyond their means,” County Council member Tamara Paltin of West Maui said during a recent meeting. 

A neighborhood in Pukalani within walking distance of schools and shops was geared toward offering homes within residents’ financial reach. (Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022)

Last month, Paltin introduced a county resolution to urge the government to hurry up and launch a program, an action she took after inquiring with the county’s housing department about it on and off since last June with little movement. The measure was unanimously supported by her colleagues on the council — and by Maui County’s new mayor, Richard Bissen. 

In a letter to the council, Bissen, who took office Jan. 2,  said his Department of Housing and Human Concerns had started reaching out to other counties to learn best practices and is working on putting together a proposal to find an organization to run the program. A spokesperson for the county did not respond to an email seeking further details.

Housing advocates say the rollout can’t come soon enough, as homeowners paid their latest installment of property taxes last week. But at the same time, the delay has raised broader questions about the county government’s capacity to face Maui’s housing crisis head on. 

The island’s lack of affordable housing is decades in the making but became even more acute when a flood of out-of-state buyers flocked to Maui during the pandemic. Today, the typical home price stands at about $1.16 million, yet the per capita income of a Maui County resident is only about $40,000, according to census estimates. Unless the gap between residents’ income and housing costs drastically shrinks, many fear that the diaspora of Maui’s longtime families will continue.

“With a lack of housing stock, if a family gets foreclosed on now, where can they go?” said Jeff Gilbreath, executive director of Hawaii Community Lending. “They’re going to have a hard time finding a rental they can afford.”

A luxury home under construction in Olowalu. (Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022)

Gilbreath’s organization runs the programs — officially known as the Homeowner Assistance Fund — in Hawaii and Kauai counties that are designed to make homeowners whole after the pandemic’s economic devastation. Not only does it pay for past-due mortgages, but it also covers the cost of past-due property taxes and homeowners’ association fees, which, if left unpaid, can also lead to families losing their homes. 

Besides paying up to $30,000 in bills, it also covers the cost to have the organizations running the program to work with mortgage lenders to lower monthly mortgage payments so, if the family’s income dropped during the pandemic, they won’t fall behind again. But that negotiation process alone can take about six months, which is why other counties jumped to get the program up and running as soon as possible, Gilbreath said. 

In Hawaii and Kauai counties, he said, almost 640 families had been helped by the end of January. But the slow start in Maui County means the government now has only about two and a half years to launch the program and spend the entire $8 million before it has to be returned to the federal government. 

Council members were told that the request was never issued because Maui County’s housing department director was busy trying to finish up other major projects late last year, including helping to buy down the cost of homes in a new development and purchasing a Lahaina apartment building where tenants were at risk of being forced out.

“Obviously that’s not an excuse, but I think it’s a good thing that happened,” council member Yuki Lei Sugimura said in a recent meeting. 

Affordable apartments for seniors in Pukalani. (Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022)

In recent years, Maui County officials have made big plans to try to tackle the housing crisis, but there have been some concerns that there isn’t the staffing within the county to get things done. 

In 2020, the council hired Gilbreath’s organization for $300,000 to come up with a plan to spur the construction of 5,000 affordable homes and ease the shortage of housing within residents’ financial reach. At the time that his organization put together the plan, Maui County had about eight full-time staffers in housing, whereas Hawaii County had 51, Gilbreath said during a recent council presentation. 

Over the past couple years, the Maui County Council made drastic changes in hopes of spurring more affordable housing, including raising taxes on investment homes and vacation rentals to put a total of $58 million into the county’s affordable housing fund.

Residents last year also voted overwhelmingly to split up the government’s Department of Housing and Human Concerns so that Maui will have a standalone department dedicated to creating housing within local families’ financial reach, which is supposed to open in the summer of 2024.

Advocates hope that the department will take a more active role in the sector. Across Maui’s political spectrum, officials agree that building on county-owned land is the surest path forward to solving the housing crisis. If the county pays the cost of construction, it’s legally able to prioritize that housing for local residents.

“The work needs to be done now to set up that department so that we’re not reactive,” Gilbreath told council members.

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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