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Ensure that public housing serves its intended purpose


The need for government-subsidized housing far outstrips the supply. That much is obvious from the backlog of some 10,000 applicants waiting to be placed in one of the state’s roughly 6,100 public housing units. In the wake of a severe, global economic downturn, that circumstance is anything but unusual.

Many cities other than Honolulu are in similar straits, but Hawaii’s problem is particularly acute. There is an especially wide gap between typical rents and what low-income working families can expect to earn in Hawaii’s job market. Addressing that gap is a difficult but essential element in any plan for getting more of the working poor housed decently.

The Hawaii Public Housing Authority is considering changes to its admissions policy regarding which interest groups move to the front of the preference line on the waiting list. Although federal officials have cleared the authority to start the review, it will be a long process, with community meetings still to be scheduled.

The state already is contemplating one possible change in preference: Homelessness wouldn’t necessarily clinch an opening in public housing. Given the immense demand and the short supply, it’s understandable why the state feels pressure to loosen or eliminate some of its admission preferences.

The HPHA board of directors shortly will turn over five seats to new appointees. State officials said the new board is likely to get a chance to review all the proposals before anything happens, but clearly the waiting list needs to be brought up to date. It will be closed to new applicants while that review happens, which means the authority staff must focus on moving qualified people off the list and into some 600 units that have been vacant for too long.

But the deeper problem is that public housing here doesn’t function as it should. It provides housing for the elderly and disabled, who have little prospect of moving up on the income scale, but it’s also supposed to be a temporary solution for able-bodied residents who are in their working years but have fallen on hard times.

The trouble is, there’s not enough incentive for many families to work their way out of public housing. The top annual household income for a family of four is about $29,000; when salaries rise above that level, the family is disqualified for housing and can be thrust back into an unaffordable rental market.

Nevertheless, the authority should ramp up programs to boost a family’s earning power and self-sufficiency: Some can make the leap.

At the same time, more must be done to increase the affordable rental stock. That’s why this week’s dedication of Sea Winds, the new affordable housing complex in Waianae, sounded a high note. It was built as a public-private partnership with the Weinberg Foundation; more such arrangements must be encouraged.

Even better, the mix of long-term and transitional units are geared for those who earn under 60 percent of Honolulu’s median income. Since public housing aims at those under 30 percent of median, projects like Sea Winds help to narrow the gap.

The state’s low-income residents should be expected to work their way out of their need for public housing instead of clinging to it as a permanent entitlement. But first they need more affordable options than there are. Unless this bottleneck is broken, Hawaii will never overcome its longstanding dysfunction in meeting its housing needs.

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