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Honolulu Council Chair Tommy Waters is frustrated: For two years he’s asked, waited and asked again for Mayor Rick Blangiardi’s administration to divulge a previously promised housing plan as well as a strategy on dealing with a growing homeless population on the island.

“Affordable housing is of utmost importance to me, and it is also a top priority of this Council,” Waters told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser via email. “Since 2021, and in numerous Council meetings, there have been requests from different Council members for a housing plan. At one point, we were told the plan was being worked on. After that, we were told the plan was on the managing director’s desk. Then, we were told there was a need to revise said plan. No such plan has been presented to the Council since.”

But Blangiardi said in an interview that his administration has achieved successes in the fight to offer Honolulu — a city where the cost of a single-family homes soars above $1 million — more affordable housing options, as well as dealing with the ongoing issue of homelessness here.

“Our approach right now is really focused on execution,” Blangiardi said. “I can tell you fundamentally, understanding the problems and coming up with the right solutions is a bunch of work in progress.”

And Blangiardi asserted that a housing plan — written or not — should not be a measure of success toward fixing affordability. “You know, there’s been affordable issues in this city for over 50 years. Where were all the plans? Where was the execution? What got done that they suddenly need a plan?”

Mayor since 2021, Blangiardi’s stated priorities in his run for office included “stronger action to help the homeless” and “fast-tracking housing projects locals can afford.”

Waters’ criticisms surfaced at a Council budget committee meeting on Jan. 10. City staff requested another round of funding — in this case $33 million — to continue the 2-year-old Rental and Utility Relief Program, which uses federal COVID-19-related money to aid struggling renters as well as their landlords.

But instead of budgeting toward rent relief — something he deemed a temporary approach for a much wider problem — Waters asked to see the mayor’s plans on housing and homelessness, including plans to build housing for lower-income households earning less than 50% of median income, or about $38,000 a year for an individual and less than $63,000 annually for a family of four.

“What is the city doing? What is the plan to the building of homes for 30% to 50% (median income)?” Waters asked. “It seems like a Band-Aid we’re putting on, but we’re really not going to stop the bleeding because what’s stopping folks from coming back in three months and saying, ‘We need more money,’ when the money could have been or should have been spent on long-term solutions.” Later in that meeting, Waters added, “We’ve been asking for a housing plan for two years now. I just think it would be a good idea to have (the city administration) commit to a date.”

Following the meeting, Scott Humber, the mayor’s communi­cation’s director, told the Star- Advertiser, “Our plan is to respond to Council within the next 30 days.”

Yet weeks later, Waters remains disheartened with the delay to produce plans for more than $200 million in funding at stake to address the twin crises of affordable housing and homelessness in a concrete, budgetary way.

“I have raised the funding we have allocated to housing many times; I have no doubt the administration is aware the Council wants to see those resources deployed to address the critical issue of housing,” Waters said. “But we cannot lapse over $200 million in funding for affordable housing, given our current crisis. This is where a comprehensive plan would help to focus resources and know where the Council and other stakeholders can coordinate and support.”

Past and present plans

In office since 2019, Waters said the Council affirms its commitment to housing by adopting formal resolutions to request an update on the city’s housing plan and any updates to affordable housing rental reports, the city’s 10-year plan and other efforts to address housing.

As far as planning for affordable housing, the Blangiardi administration concedes much of the city’s existing plan comes from the past — namely, from former Mayor Kirk Caldwell.

“The city’s affordable housing strategy was prepared by the prior administration and includes updates through 2018,” said Humber. “The 2018 publication will remain the city’s official strategy until the administration finalizes its revised strategy, which expands the city’s role in affordable housing.”

According to the city, Blangiardi’s affordable housing plan still relies on measures like Bill 7, which was signed into law by Caldwell in 2019 and, unless amended by Council members, will expire in 2024. Bill 7 was designed to promote the private development of affordable rental housing units in return for tax incentives and relaxed building standards. That includes building in mixed-use zoning areas, or constructing buildings with increased sizes and housing densities.

Similarly, the mayor’s office also touts Bill 1, which Blangiardi signed into law in 2021 and, like Bill 7, is also set to expire 2024. It is a measure that gives up to $10 million in grants to eligible developers and property owners to build affordable rental units. Under Bill 1, developers can receive up to $15,000 per unit based on the number of housing units rented to households that fall below the area median income.

But there are other parts of the mayor’s affordable housing plan.

Private activity bonds offer eligible builders of affordable rentals financing via tax-exempt bonds, city reports state. To qualify, projects must hold 20% of their dwelling units for tenants whose incomes are 50% or less of the area median gross income or at least 40% of the units for tenants whose incomes are 60% or less. The developer must agree to keep the rental project affordable for a minimum of 15 years.

Humber said the city is also prioritizing improvements in the Department of Planning and Permitting, including the prioritization of affordable housing projects “and the creation of a DPP Task Force comprised of community and planning, permitting and development professionals,” said Humber, noting this task force of still unnamed individuals has yet to meet.

“At the current time, the plan is to constitute the group and discuss with them the format they think best suited to serve our goal and purpose. When we have confirmed the names of those who agree to participate, we will gladly share the names with the public.”

Humber noted the city’s affordable housing successes to date include the acquisition of buildings as well as pending construction projects. Among them is Halewai‘olu, a senior affordable rental project at 1331 River St. that will offer 150 apartment units to low-income seniors in Chinatown. That project is slated to be built and completed this summer. Similarly, the city acquired the Waikiki Vista building — formerly Hawaii Pacific University dorms and classrooms — to add another 100 units to the city’s affordable housing portfolio.

Much like the city’s rental relief fund, the city’s purchase of the Waikiki Vista property for $37.7 million used federal American Rescue Act money.

Meanwhile, Humber said the city’s homeless plan is currently in “draft form and is being reviewed by departments (and) staff for final edits.”

According to Blangiardi, the Crisis, Outreach, Response, and Engagement Program, or CORE, addresses the homeless. Started under his watch in 2021, the program responds to nonviolent homeless- related 911 calls using refurbished city ambulances. CORE also works in conjunction with the Homeless Outreach and Navigation for Unsheltered Persons, or HONU, a state-funded, short-term housing program on Oahu that started in 2019.

Saying homelessness is an “age-old problem,” Blangiardi added that nearly half the city’s homeless — at last count nearly 4,000 people on Oahu alone — have been on the street for more than 10 years.

“We’re trying to deal with people who have real, real difficult challenges: people who are mentally ill, who are drug- and alcohol-addicted or even have other kinds of addictions … who are out in the streets for a long time,” Blangiardi said. “It’s not about a plan: There’s a whole lot of different things that we’re doing between CORE and HONU.”

Council efforts

Waters, who has served as chair since 2020, said the Council’s efforts on affordable housing are clear.

“The Council (has) articulated affordable housing as a priority through our budget process, where we have budgeted hundreds of millions of dollars for affordable housing since I became chair,” Waters said.

He said in fiscal year 2022 the Council added $253 million to the city’s capital improvement program budget. In doing so, the Council earmarked $18 million for the Community Revitalization Initiative; $20 million to acquire homeless service facilities; $170 million for affordable housing; $35 million for affordable housing with a preference for transit- oriented development areas; and $10 million for affordable housing within the Koolauloa region.

Likewise, he said the FY 2023 capital improvement budget — active through June 30, 2024 — appropriates other funds, including $7.1 million for the renovation or development of low-income affordable housing, which may be administered or managed by the City and County of Honolulu or in conjunction with private nonprofit or private developers, among other actions.

The FY 2023 budget also appropriates $53.4 million toward affordable housing initiatives, Waters said.

It’s up to the city administration to see those appropriated funds are spent, he said.

“The Council’s primary kuleana is to ensure the resources and the policies are in place to support implementation,” said Waters. “Once the budget is passed, the city administration’s kuleana is to execute these programs. We have expressed support for the projects we are aware of: the state- required movement of the Sand Island Treatment Center, funding for the yet-to-be opened Homeless Resource Center on Iwilei Street, and the acquisition of Waikiki Vista for the purposes of affordable housing.”

However, Waters noted, “when we are talking about the level of need and urgency, we need a comprehensive housing plan, not just individual projects.”

Blangiardi said his administration will remain focused on execution.

“For us everything is a moving target,” said Blangiardi, adding that the mayors of other American cities have offered him the same advice. “They’ll tell you, execution is learning … that’s how you do it.”

Moreover, the mayor added Honolulu Hale has bookshelves “lined with plans that never were. But if you’re getting into the nuances of what we’re doing on housing and our homeless and you want a written document and you say, ‘This is how it’s going to be,’ that presupposes you have the solution to that. We don’t have that. … Nobody has that. … I don’t care if you have a written plan, it’s not going to solve these issues. That’s true in this city and it’s true across the country.”

According to Waters, more actions may be seen at the Council level toward crafting a concrete housing plan if none materialize at the mayor’s office.

“We continue to wait on the administration’s plan but will work to complete one if we do not receive one soon,” said Waters. “We need to act urgently because local families continue to find it harder to thrive in our island home, and I am scared to death to think that my children will have no choice but to move away because the cost of housing is too high.”

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