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Editorial | Island Voices

City housing office would lack expertise to fulfill goal


On Tuesday, voters on Oahu will be asked whether or not the city should create a housing office to address the need for affordable housing and the homeless population.

Remember that the city, at one time, had a Department of Housing; however, a few years ago the city decided that it was duplicating the efforts of the state’s Public Housing Agency and the Hawaii Housing and Finance Development Corp.

In recent years the city has been struggling with the problem of getting rid of the dozen or so affordable housing projects it built in the 1980s and 1990s. The city’s Department of Community Services retains a core division that addresses housing needs such as issuing Section 8 vouchers and serves as a pass-through for federal grants such as the Community Development Block Grants that benefit subsidized housing.

If the intent of establishing this "new" department of housing is to address the growing population of the homeless, it should be remembered that it is not only shelter that the homeless need but also support services to help them transition into subsidized housing and hopefully into the marketplace for housing.

In other words, it will take a holistic approach to address the plight of the homeless, not just a department of housing.

This is the failing of the Hawaii Public Housing Authority that again merely provides housing and fails to provide the support services to empower those who are in public housing with the skills to move out.

Whom will the city hire to staff this new department of housing? The city does not have the expertise to develop housing or maintain that housing, as evidenced by the dozen or so projects it still owns and manages. Those projects have become liabilities the city is now trying to unload on private investors. Former housing staff have either retired or moved on to other responsibilities.

This City Charter amendment is being advocated by groups who do not understand what it takes to pull off an affordable housing project that needs ot only to be affordable but also to be sustainable. The city would have to seek expertise in developing affordable housing that would entail financing, construction, occupancy and project management. The greatest challenge will be the financing programs and structures that will generate sufficient funding for the project, as well as comply with the time constraints of the permitting and zoning processes.

This expertise cannot be found in government. The challenge of building and maintaining affordable housing lends itself to the entrepreneurship that is found in the private sector.

The role of the public sector is to provide the land on which affordable homes or projects can be built, as land is the most expensive component. Government can lease the land to the developer; it can develop a menu of financing options to subsidize the cost of construction; and it could include special purpose revenue and private activity bonds, as well as the federal and state low-income housing tax credits.

To create yet another housing department would only add another layer of bureaucracy, another hurdle to achieving the desired goal of providing affordable housing in Hawaii. Voters should reject this charter amendment if they truly want to see more affordable housing in Honolulu.


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