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Editorial | Island Voices

Building rail will help solve housing crunch

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This is in response to the commentary by the Rev. Alan Mark regarding his advocacy of a city housing office ("A city housing office could help solve homelessness," Island Voices, Star-Advertiser, Aug. 1).

I make my comments as a developer and property manager of government-assisted housing. I am also a past chairman of former Mayor Mufi Hannemann’s Affordable Housing Advisory Committee.

While I respect the work and goals of Faith Action for Community Equity, I disagree with some of the Rev. Mark’s assertions and his criticism of former Mayor Hannemann.

First, he is just plain wrong in stating that to "bring intense focus in the city on affordable housing … is the true solution to the growing affordable housing and homeless crisis."

Homelessness and affordable housing are often not the same issue. No matter how many shelters and affordable housing units we have, we will still have a population of homeless. And while bringing "focus" is needed and will help, it is far from the "true solution."

Second, the Rev. Mark believes that the city should take the lead on this issue because "so many pieces of the possible solutions … lie with the city."

I can tell you that former Mayor Hannemann is correct in pointing to the state to take the lead, as the vast majority of federal and state funds for social services and affordable housing programs comes through and is used by the state. The amount of Community Development Block Grants and HOME funds is small when considering that it can take more than $250,000 to subsidize one affordable rental unit.

It is true that there are other tools the city has underutilized, such as the capacity to provide private placement municipal bonds. But it is unfair to criticize former Mayor Hannemann when it was the voters who eliminated the city’s scandal-plagued Housing Department during Mayor Jeremy Harris’ time.

While I believe that Honolulu should have an office on housing, it is the mayor and City Council that must decide if taxpayers are willing to bear the cost of such an office and whether it would be worth that cost, and to remember why it was eliminated to begin with.

As the Rev. Mark points out, all the other counties in Hawaii and all other major cities have such an office. The Rev. Mark fails to point out that none of them have effectively dealt with affordable housing or homelessness in spite of this.

Finally, the Rev. Mark fails to tell the public that Mayor Hannemann, acting on the committee’s recommendations, did hire a special assistant to the mayor on housing and we appreciated the difficulty in budgeting one person, never mind a whole office.

While I have a layman’s understanding of homelessness, I can tell you that affordable housing is a simple matter of supply and demand. With NIMBYs and Sierra Clubs fighting every developer for every county zoning and state land use permit, the supply of housing will continue to be limited in a way that has caused the median price of homes on Oahu to double every 10 years since 1985 — unless we can find a way to protect our open space and ag lands but still grow our housing inventory.

The only way to do that is to build vertical, higher-density housing around rail transit lines. Or we can spend $2 billion subsidizing affordable rentals on ag lands and spot developments in the country areas.

Mufi Hannemann knows this, which is why he focused his attention on rail and transit-oriented development and the affordable housing opportunities that it will bring.

I would encourage the Rev. Mark and others to join former Mayor Hannemann and support rail as a better use of his energy toward solving affordable housing issues.


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