The County Council is vetting his $1 billion budget proposal that includes funds for new construction and trying to complete unfinished projects.

Politicians have long campaigned on promises to solve Maui County’s housing crisis, but those promises in recent years have only become harder to keep. 

Maui County locator map

The challenge now rests with Mayor Richard Bissen, who is hashing out his government’s first annual budget, a $1 billion spending plan that would lay the foundation for tackling the housing shortage during his four-year term and beyond. 

Bissen inherited a government that housing advocates and developers say has long lacked the staff and expertise to proactively respond to the growing crisis.

The council is now vetting his administration’s proposed 928-page spending plan. It calls for adding $43 million to the county’s affordable housing fund to lower the costs of more than 450 new units and tackling projects within the county’s housing division that weren’t done last year.

Affordable apartments for older adults in Pukalani are an example of efforts to help local residents get by. (Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022)

Among the unfinished business: using $1 million to fully enact a law passed in 2021 that empowers the government to prioritize longtime residents for county-funded housing projects.

Another $300,000 would go toward studying county-owned lands that might be suitable for affordable housing. Last year, the county’s housing division was given more than $1.7 million to do similar inventories, but officials have said that didn’t happen. There are currently eight vacancies in the housing division alone.

As the county works to get those jobs filled, the mayor has assigned staff in his own office to expand housing options for residents of Maui, Molokai and Lanai amid concern that locals are being priced out.

“This is the full continuum of housing that prioritizes and places kamaaina in affordable rentals and provides opportunities for homeownership,” Cynthia Lallo, senior executive assistant to the mayor, said during a budget meeting on Tuesday. 

Mayor Richard Bissen took office in January. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Bissen’s approach signals a shift from the status quo of his predecessor, former Mayor Michael Victorino.

The proposed budget for fiscal year 2024, which starts in July, would make key staff under his supervision responsible for tackling specific challenges, ranging from finding better ways to shelter people living on the street to using innovative and environmentally friendly building materials to lower development costs.

A new executive assistant — Pono Asano, who’s from Molokai and has experience getting homes built for veterans — reports directly to the mayor’s chief of staff as the subject matter expert and point person for the mayor’s housing initiatives. 

During a Tuesday meeting with a coalition of affordable housing advocates and developers, Asano said he is involved in the efforts to figure out which county-owned lands could be easily made “shovel ready” with water lines, sewers and roads for new development. 

If the county government builds neighborhoods or apartments on its own properties, it could then adopt a leasehold or land trust model, keeping ownership of the underlying land but leasing or selling the buildings at affordable rates to full-time residents. That would be a way to ensure that housing subsidized by taxpayer dollars doesn’t end up in the hands of investors or vacation homeowners.

But even if officials set the perfect plan to develop government land in motion today, it could still be years before it pays off in the form of ready-to-move-in homes. In the meantime, the mayor’s office is working on another campaign promise: making it easier, cheaper and faster for existing homeowners to build additional dwelling units on their properties by providing pre-approved building plans.

Homes under construction in Kula. (Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022)

Maui County Council Chair Alice Lee is simultaneously working to set aside money for a new pilot program that would give homeowners grants up to $50,000 to build so-called ohana units on their properties as long as they’re used as long-term rentals for locals. The council must vet the proposal and then officials must create the program’s rules, but Lee said she’s optimistic that the initiative could be launched by the end of the year.

“They would be adding to the inventory of rental long-term rental units,” Lee said in an interview. “This is something that would certainly have a positive impact on our housing situation.” 

Depending on the complex, the waitlist for government-subsidized affordable rentals on Maui can run anywhere from two to 12 years long. In the private rental market, securing a place within a working family’s budget can take months, involve obsessively refreshing rental listings every hour and emailing landlords who are equally as overwhelmed when they’re bombarded by nearly 100 inquiries if they leave posts up for just 24 hours. 

If a Maui family saves enough cash to try to buy a home and free up a rental unit, they’re also hard-pressed to find one — even with outside help. Maui County has tried to turn more renters into homeowners by offering up to $30,000 in downpayment assistance, and this year, the Department of Housing and Human Concerns wants to budget enough to help 50 families.

But it’s always been a challenge for Maui families to qualify for mortgages and find homes within financial reach, and high interest rates could make it even harder.

Lori Tsuhako, the department’s director, said in the previous fiscal year, which ran from July 2021 through June 2022, the county was only able to help six families. Since the current fiscal year began last July, Tsuhako said no families have been able to use the money yet, but one household was in escrow as of last week.

“We hope (to help) all 50,” said Tsuhako. “But there are a lot of different variables controlling buyers’ ability to purchase.”

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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