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Hawaii’s $28B budget a mixed bag on homelessness, housing

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    Hawaii House Finance Chairwoman Sylvia Luke, right, talks to reporters as Rep. Henry Aquino, left, looks on. Lawmakers approved a $28 billion spending bill that approves more money for homelessness programs than last year. But housing advocates say the amount of money set aside for affordable housing development is not enough.

Hawaii lawmakers voted today to spend $28 billion over the next two years in a budget that includes money for homelessness programs, improving school buildings and fighting rat lungworm disease.

While lawmakers committed more money this year to homelessness services and enforcing rules prohibiting living on sidewalks than they did last year, housing advocates say the money set aside for affordable housing development won’t go far enough to allay Hawaii’s housing and homelessness crisis.

But housing advocates say the money set aside for affordable housing development won’t go far enough to allay Hawaii’s housing and homelessness crisis.

State lawmakers last year committed to create 22,500 new affordable housing units in a decade, but the $25 million in bonds for affordable rentals that lawmakers approved today, along with money from taxes that fund development, will only support about 400 new rental units, said housing advocate Catherine Graham, co-chair of the Housing Now Coalition.

“In this climate, it’s kind of death to affordable housing,” Graham said.

In addition to $25 million for the rental housing revolving fund Graham referred to, lawmakers also approved $25 million for the dwelling unit revolving fund that helps developers building homes for sale and $17.6 million for public housing developments and renovations, along with funds for Habitat for Humanity.

House Finance Chairwoman Sylvia Luke said she believes the state office that provides financing to developers has enough money available, and “we had some doubts as to whether they are able to fund development right away.” In addition to affordable housing, the state also has to pay for schools and hospitals, she added.

Lawmakers had pushed more ambitious spending plans, including a proposal by Senate Housing Chairman Will Espero to spend $2 billion on housing development, but the bills to spend more money on housing failed. Espero introduced his bill after an analysis indicated it would take $2 billion to meet the state’s housing needs.

“I wish we could have provided more funding for housing projects, but obviously we didn’t,” Espero said.

Gavin Thornton, co-executive director of Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice, said a $2 billion housing development effort is needed.

“While that might not be a realistic proposal politically, I really believe that is the most realistic proposal out there for solving the affordable housing crisis,” Thornton said. “It’s going to require some pretty drastic action like that if you want to make some real progress.”

On homelessness, lawmakers set aside $16.6 million for 2018, well above the $12 million spent in 2017, according to figures provided by Scott Morishige, the governor’s coordinator on homelessness. They only set aside about $4 million for 2019, but advocates will have a chance to push for more money next year, Morishige said.

To help stem the spread of rat lungworm disease that has infected more than a dozen people on the islands this year, lawmakers gave $1 million to the Department of Health, but they did not include funding for the University of Hawaii group that has been researching the disease.

Schools are seeing an infusion at least $386 million for construction and improvements statewide, including several new schools on Oahu and Maui.

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