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Thursday, August 21, 2014         

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Voters to decide on housing office

A City Charter amendment would put the agency within the mayor's office

By Gordon Y.K. Pang

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Voters will get a chance to decide whether the city should re-establish a housing office that would tackle homelessness and affordable-housing issues.

The Council voted 6-0 yesterday to ask voters to consider a City Charter amendment at the general election to place a housing office within the mayor's office.

Meanwhile, acting Mayor Kirk Caldwell has offered his own plan that would resurrect the housing office as part of the Department of Community Services. That plan could be implemented internally and not require a decision by the voters.

In either case, the city would be going back to the future by re-establishing a housing agency.

Oahu voters in 1998 chose to eliminate the city's housing agency as part of a governmentwide reorganization plan initiated by former Mayor Jeremy Harris and designed to streamline government operations and make it more efficient.

In the wake of the Ewa Villages scandal, in which housing agency employee Michael Kahapea was found guilty of stealing $5.8 million from taxpayers, there was little resistance to the end of the agency.

Housing advocates, however, testified yesterday that times have changed.

"The crisis in housing and homelessness has become far worse than it was," said the Rev. Bob Nakata, chapter president of the nonprofit Faith Action for Community Equity. "The voters chose to take out the housing department -- the voters should be given the opportunity to reverse that decision."

Putting the choice before voters will make the decision "far more permanent and far more likely to be implemented," Nakata said.

Cat Wong, president of the Ohana Housing Network of Oahu, a coalition of tenant associations from city affordable-housing projects, said it's not just the homeless who could benefit from re-establishing a housing agency.

The group's goal "has always been preservation and protection of existing affordable housing in perpetuity," Wong said.

"Affordable housing and any future housing needs to be intelligently and coherently developed and organized, so that the housing community can continue to thrive in its own livelihood and (residents can) experience some sense of security and peace of mind that their homes will be protected," she said.

Proponents of the Council plan also argue that putting housing functions within the mayor's office would ensure that it gets top priority instead of being mired among the multitude of city agencies.

"If it's in the office of the mayor, then it's going to happen," said Councilman Donovan Dela Cruz. "And we would have someone accountable."

He noted that the Council already added two new positions in the mayor's office to deal with housing issues in this year's budget.

But Caldwell and other members of the administration said they already are taking steps to bring back the agency and that waiting for a charter amendment that may or may not pass would only slow down that goal.

"There will already be that function within the Department of Community Services," said Debbie Kim Morikawa, city director of community services. "We've already acknowledged that under acting Mayor Kirk Caldwell, housing is a priority and we're taking steps ... and moving forward with a reorganization plan."

The mayor has the authority to reorganize city functions as he sees fit and those changes can occur without receiving charter amendment approval from the voters.

Morikawa also said she doesn't think any mayor would want a $50 million agency attached to the mayor's office and that any future mayor would likely work to shift housing functions into the Department of Community Services, which handles related functions.

The new housing agency would not be to develop affordable housing as it has in the past, but would assist private housing developers by creating policies and programs, and making financing and other resources available to them.

To get the housing agency charter on the November ballot, Council members needed to approve a resolution by yesterday. To ensure that happened, the Council's Executive Matters and Legal Affairs Committee had to meet earlier in the day to move the resolution out of committee.

While giving final approval to the resolution placing the charter amendment question to the voters, Council members also voted to table a resolution pushing Caldwell's plan. But the law allows for the administration to proceed with the plan unless the Council outright rejects it.

Dela Cruz, who chairs the committee, said: "There's a lot of people who need help, and if you can't go directly to the mayor and the office of housing, then I think you might get lost in the city bureaucracy."

Caldwell, after the Council's final vote, said he's been given mixed signals by the Council and now isn't sure whether to proceed with re-establishing the agency in the Department of Community Services.

"We want to act immediately to start to address the issue of affordable housing and the homeless problem," Caldwell said. "They seem to want to say, 'Let the people decide.' Does that mean we wait until November to let the people decide or do we start now?"






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