Nani Medeiros’ move comes amid extended personal attacks in person and on social media.

Less than two months after Gov. Josh Green announced a bold plan to address Hawaii’s housing crisis, the official in charge of implementing the plan has submitted her resignation. 

Hawaii Chief Housing Officer Nani Medeiros’ decision comes after criticism of Green’s plan that has extended to lawsuits and personal attacks on Medeiros at public meetings and on social media.

Medeiros, a Native Hawaiian single mother who previously worked to build villages for homeless people in West Oahu, said she had decided to step down for the sake of her family, which she said had been threatened by political opponents.

“Over the last several weeks many lies have been said about me and my family,” Medeiros said in a statement. “Threats have been made against me, loved ones who don’t even work for the government, and even children. I love my family, and for the sake of their health and safety, I’ve been left with no choice but to resign from my position.”

Green commended his departing housing chief and called out one of the more uncivil detractors.

“Nani Medeiros is a truly compassionate person who has worked tirelessly to help create novel solutions to house the homeless and to build affordable homes in Hawaii – only to face a barrage of personal attacks in person and on social media from those who would rather tear us all apart, rather than help Hawaii move forward,” Green said in a statement. 

The governor specifically pointed to comments made by BJ Penn, a professional fighter and failed gubernatorial candidate who confronted Medeiros during a recent public meeting, calling himself her “boss” and saying, “You don’t talk to your boss like that.”

Nani Medeiros, the chair of the governors housing committee answers questions from media regarding the upcoming emergency proclamation
Nani Medeiros, Gov. Josh Green’s chief housing officer, has submitted her resignation. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

“The bullying tactics, with obvious violent undertones employed by Mr. Penn and his followers have no place in Hawaii and are absolutely contrary to our spirit of Aloha for others,” Green said. “I won’t tolerate anyone from my team, or anyone in our state, being treated this way. It is despicable.”

The rhetoric and personal attacks have become pitched in recent weeks, following wildfires that destroyed Lahaina, Maui, on Aug. 8.

Green’s Emergency Proclamation Relating to Housing drew immediate criticism from environmentalists and neighborhood groups when he unveiled it July 17. The order sought to address a housing crisis that has driven median single-family prices on Oahu to more than $1 million. 

But critics said the order went too far by suspending a range of environmental and land-use laws and replacing them with a series of emergency rules carrying the force of law. A panel of state and local government officials and non-governmental organizations, the Build Beyond Barriers Working Group, was established to vet and certify developments, with Medeiros as chair.

Perhaps most notable among the critics was Wayne Tanaka, director of the Sierra Club’s Hawaii chapter, a member of a working group appointed to administer development under the proclamation. 

Tanaka said in an interview after Green announced the proclamation that the process put too much power in too few hands. He said it didn’t pass “the sniff test.”

Tensions escalated after the wildfires. Concerned citizens joined environmentalists, Native Hawaiian activists and right wing politicians decrying the working group and Medeiros. Hearings of the working group have drawn people who have no qualms venting their anger and frustration at Medeiros and others who were on hand to listen to concerns.

Penn, who lost in the 2022 Republican gubernatorial primary to former Lt. Gov. Duke Aiona, isn’t the only failed candidate to attack Medeiros. When Penn called himself Medeiros’ boss at Build Beyond Barriers Working Group meeting on Aug. 29, Republican gubernatorial candidate Gary Cordery accused Medeiros and other working group members of trying to acquire land in Lahaina so the state could build a “smart city.”

It was a striking display of animosity toward a public official who came into the job in December with demonstrated experience helping homeless people and a stated mission to stem the diaspora of local families leaving the islands.

“I’ve never owned a home. I don’t know what it’s like to not have to worry about rent being raised,” Medeiros said in her parting statement. “I don’t know what it’s like to get keys for the first time, to furnish a house exactly the way I’d want it to be because it’s mine, to give my family some sense of permanence in the only community we’ve ever known. 

“I took this job because I know I’m not alone, and every year, there are so many more just like me — locals who either can’t afford to own a home or will be forced to leave the islands,” she added. 

The opposition continued after the Aug. 29 working group meeting. Two days later, individuals and organizations including the Sierra Club and American Civil Liberties Union filed lawsuits challenging the legality of the order and the working group’s power to approve housing projects, as well as Medeiros’ authority as chair of the group.

Penn stepped up his attacks on Medeiros this week by going after her boyfriend, falsely accusing him and his family’s business, M. Watanabe Electrical Contractor Inc., of getting state contracts through Green and Medeiros.

M. Watanabe Electrical Contractor and Ryan Watanabe have never received a state contract, according to the State Procurement Office website.

Green accepted Medeiros’ resignation, although she will stay on a month longer. Under the proclamation, the housing “disaster emergency relief period” ends Sept. 15 and would have to be renewed in order to remain in effect. 

Green initially said he would continue to extend the emergency housing proclamation for a year. That was before the Maui wildfires, which destroyed 2,200 structures, including about 1,500 homes. There’s no sign that Medeiros’ resignation will prevent Green from reauthorizing the emergency proclamation.

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