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Advocates say Legislature could do more to help homeless

  • CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARADVERTISER.COM
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Advocates for homeless families are saying more work needs to be done to help Hawaii’s growing homeless population and to build affordable housing, despite hopeful signs in the 2015 Legislative session.

Hawaii needs to construct more than 27,000 affordable housing rental units over the next five years to meet demand. Adding in market-priced housing and homes for first-time buyers, the total need balloons to more than 64,000 units over the next five years, according to a recent housing study conducted for the state.

But the amount of money the Legislature ultimately granted for additional affordable housing through a mix of bonds and tax revenues was less than what advocates and Gov. David Ige had hoped for and could fund about 780 new rental housing units statewide in the next year.

"The need is so much greater. So I think we really need to think more outside the box, and there really needs to be more of a commitment to making a real investment," said Scott Morishige, executive director of the organization PHOCUSED.

Hawaii’s affordable-housing developments are often financed by the Rental Housing Trust Fund, which provides low-interest loans to developers. Lawmakers approved $40 million in bonds for the fund, far less than the $100 million Ige requested. Although it’s less money than many hoped for, Sen. Suzanne Chun Oakland called the appropriation significant because it was triple the level of funding approved in the past.

Lawmakers also capped the amount of money going to housing from the conveyance tax at $38 million per year.

"While we would have loved to provide more support in many areas, it was about how we could most effectively spread out the resources that we have," said Sen. Jill Tokuda, chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee. "We really tried to cover a number of different points to be able to make an impact when it comes to making sure that people have access to housing."

Funding for smaller projects was approved, including $1.7 million to convert a former juvenile detention center into a mixed-use residential and service center in Honolulu that could include 180 affordable housing units.

"The infrastructure is in place, so hopefully we will be able to build it much quicker," Chun Oakland said.

Legislators approved $10 million in bonds to do repair and maintenance to the state’s public housing structures, which was far less than the $80 million requested by the Public Housing Authority.

The state’s Housing First program, which helps the most vulnerable chronically homeless people get into housing, was granted $1.5 million in 2016. But that level of funding means services will be limited to Oahu, not neighbor islands, and the program received no appropriation for 2017.

"It kind of shows the Legislature doesn’t consider affordable housing and homelessness a priority, even though it should," said Kathryn Xian, who pushed legislation to help the homeless people. "There’s a looming crisis for affordable housing and addressing homelessness, since our numbers are going in the wrong direction."

One bright spot, advocates said, was the approval of a bill that would help homeless people who lose identification cards when encampments are raided. To get a replacement ID, a clergy person or service provider could provide a sworn statement that the individual lives in Hawaii, proof that is often difficult to obtain without a permanent address.

Advocates are hoping that the Legislature will do more next year to address barriers people face getting into apartments. Among the bills that died was one that sought to regulate application fees charged by landlords. Many applicants pay the fee, but then never hear back from landlords about why they didn’t get the apartment, making them wonder whether the landlord actually ran a credit check, said Jenny Lee, staff attorney at Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice.

"Processing an application should be part of your cost of doing business," Lee said. "This shouldn’t be part of their business model for profiting."

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