Chronic homelessness will continue to be a major source of contention between Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell and City Council members if deliberations on the fiscal 2017 budget package are any indication.
At a news conference Wednesday, Caldwell urged Council Chairman Ernie Martin and his colleagues to support his plan to create a new, eight-person Asset Development and Management Division to oversee programs and initiatives to provide affordable and homeless housing as well as manage existing city-owned affordable housing projects.
Caldwell spoke of the gratitude expressed by new tenants of the 90-bed Hale Mauliola homeless “navigational” center and he praised the three people from the current Office of Strategic Development for making the Sand Island facility a reality. The same team also led the purchase of a former school site in Makiki last year that also is intended as housing for the homeless, he said.
Caldwell wants funding to unite the two OSD hires (one of the three recently quit) with six other people to form the new division and place it in the Department of Community Services.
“It’s really, really hard work,” Caldwell said. If a private developer had $64 million to spend on housing projects, “you don’t just devote two people. You have lawyers, you have appraisers, you have accountants, you have the … contractors. It’s complicated.”
Following Caldwell’s remarks, which were broadcast live over ‘Olelo community television, Martin joked to reporters that all he had to offer the mayor following his “emotional plea” was the box of Kleenex tissues Martin had next to him at his desk.
The mayor is expected to seek re-election for a second four-year term this fall. The Council chairman is considering a challenge.
Martin noted the administration’s request to fund seven OSD positions at a cost of $616,000 was rejected by the Council last year. The move led the administration to hire three people through contracts.
This year’s plan calls for $477,000 for the eight positions and an additional $1.9 million for management of new and existing housing facilities and other expenses.
“It’s already been debated the last couple of years,” Martin said. “The concern is this — whether we are proceeding down the right road.”
He questioned the need to pump an additional $1.8 million in next year’s budget to continue and expand Hale Mauliola, noting that only a third of the beds have been filled since it opened in November. The administration has projected the current beds will be filled by late March.
Martin also repeated criticism that the administration has been slow to spend the more than $64 million that the Council has provided the past two years for Caldwell to tackle homelessness.
“We’ve appropriated a significant amount of resources over the last two years only to not really have a definitive plan before us,” he said.
Sandy Pfund, who heads the OSD, said Tuesday that the administration has spent about $22 million providing various housing opportunities and has plans for $62 million in all.
Martin also asked how much more money should be pumped into Housing First initiatives. Housing First is focused on providing shelter to chronically homeless individuals. Martin and other Council members say more attention needs to be paid to homeless families.
Anticipating that Martin would focus on his homeless policies, Caldwell at his news conference distributed copies of two letters he sent to the Council chairman asking him to identify sites found by Council members that could be used for workforce housing. Martin mentioned the sites in a Feb. 10 Honolulu Star-Advertiser letter to the editor.
Martin suggested that Caldwell look at Council members’ previous ideas. He said suggestions by Council members to consider the Hilo Hattie site in Iwilei and another project in Waikiki for homeless or affordable housing have been dismissed with little regard by the administration. Caldwell officials have said the Hilo Hattie site is cost-prohibitive.
Caldwell accused Council leaders of holding up two housing projects, including the city-sponsored Halewaiolu senior housing project on River Street in Chinatown and expansion of the existing Moanalua Hillside Apartments complex near the Kaiser Permanente Moanalua Medical Center.
But Martin said there are legitimate reasons to go slow on both projects to address concerns raised by neighbors. In the case of the River Street project, the administration failed to discuss the development with its next-door neighbor, Borthwick Mortuary, until recently.
Martin stopped short of saying he would recommend that colleagues reject funding for the eight positions, stating that he wants to hear the administration’s pitch before deciding.
Council Budget Chairwoman Ann Kobayashi said she’s dubious about funding the new division, adding that she continues to get conflicting signals on the direction of the administration’s housing priorities.
The operating budget proposal is for $2.3 billion, a $57 million, or 2.5 percent increase, from this year. The capital improvements package calls for $834 million in projects, $491 million of it for federally mandated sewer improvements. That’s up from this year’s $569 million.
The Council Budget Committee will begins discussions on Caldwell’s proposal Wednesday.