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5 Questions with retired head of the Hawaii Appleseed Center, Victor Geminiani

  • DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                Longtime social activist and lawyer Victor Geminiani continues his campaign for affordable housing and equal justice.

    DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARADVERTISER.COM

    Longtime social activist and lawyer Victor Geminiani continues his campaign for affordable housing and equal justice.

Which aspect of the social safety net worries you the most in this economic downturn?

Nearly half of our state’s population was living paycheck to paycheck prior to this crisis. And now, a fourth of our workers are filing unemployment claims—for some their paychecks are gone forever.

The federal government has implemented major unemployment and relief programs to address this enormous need. The main challenge for our leaders will be ensuring that available funds are fully accessed by eligible residents and governments. The state has historically not been as good at either of these goals.

Certain programs, such as government-supported mental health services, will be even more critical to help deal with the trauma being experienced by our adults and especially our children. The state slashed mental health services severely during the Great Recession and the long-term results are still evident in our families, schools and streets. Funding for rent subsidies and food through the SNAP program will be critical components of any future safety net.

What do you see as the top priorities for state government spending once the Legislature reconvenes?

The top priority for state and local governments will be fairly resolving the competitive demands for support from state workers, business and residents. Decisions should be made by honoring our core Hawaiian values shared by most who call the islands their home.

Those common values include at least an equal opportunity to access quality health care, education for our children, employment that pays sufficiently to support ourselves and our families, housing that is safe and affordable, and a tax system that is fair. These common values should be our northern star when making decisions.

I believe these values should result in decisions that protect resources for nonprofits, community health centers and our schools; improving the economic needs of our workers by fully funding the long-promised EITC (earned income tax credit) program; adjusting for inflation the existing tax credits for renters and low-income individuals; passing a meaningful minimum wage, including an annual inflation adjustment mechanism; and taxing residents’ income and property rather than the highly regressive GET (general excise tax).

Do any of the affordable housing proposals being considered seem possible?

Now is the best time to significantly invest in affordable housing. Interest rates are at an all-time low and the construction sector is critical to our economic recovery. Our state’s leaders were planning to commit significant funding for affordable housing infrastructure development on state land. We should lean into the wind and move ahead with this plan.

The Hawaii Housing Planning Study found that the majority of demand is for households making $75,000 or less. So far the market is more effective in producing high-end rather than low-end units. The main takeaway is that the “market” will not solve our housing needs. Both available land and funding should exclusively target developments that provide housing options for renters as well as low/moderate income homeowners.

The state should explore expanded partnerships with local and mainland non-profit developers. While our state budget is going to decline, we can and should borrow for capital projects and infrastructure investment to make progress in solving our residents’ greatest challenge.

Transit-oriented development around rail was touted to have much potential for affordable housing. How have things worked out so far? What would move things along?

Affordable housing was one of the primary reasons used to justify the expense and disruption of building the rail system. Our leaders promised that the public investment in infrastructure, including transportation, sewers and roads, would make land nearby appropriate for affordable housing. Much of the funding came from a GET that disproportionately taxes low- and moderate-income residents.

Regulations controlling development on land near stations have been implemented that require developers to build less truly affordable housing than required, and the timeframe permitting resale rights by owners is shorter than similar successful mainland models.

As of today, almost no housing near future rail stations has been truly affordable for most Hawaii residents. We have all seen the results of the promise of affordable housing made in Kakaako evaporate. We should double down on our commitment to fulfill the TOD commitments and fast-track all low/moderate income housing, whether for rent or sale, along with making it the exclusive priority for spending all available funding.

How has the pandemic altered your views so far?

This crisis has made me appreciate more the Hawaii I experienced for the first time 50 years ago. Many of our children are experiencing it for the first time. Our islands have a degree of tranquility without the overwhelming crush of tourists while personal courtesies and kindness have improved our unity as a people. Our beaches are pristine again and old and new relationships have been nurtured and invigorated by a common challenge. We should do all we can to preserve the best of these days.

At the same time, I am well aware that the coming months will try all of us with a tsunami of threats to our social and economic survival. Hopefully crisis will bring clarity. I pray that our leaders share the vision, compassion and values of our people. If so, fair decisions will be found to build to our future while avoiding the persistent errors of the past.

THE BIO FILE

>> Personal: Born 1944 in Long Island, N.Y. Partner, Karen Jones; daughter, Nicola Geminiani.

>> Education: Graduated from Fordham University in 1966 and Villanova School of Law in 1969.

>> Professional history: Currently retired as founder and executive director of the Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice. Practiced public-interest law for 50 years; directed legal services programs for the low-income; served as executive director of the Legal Aid Society of Hawaii, 1994-2005.

>> Interests: Restoring old 1960s British sports cars that seldom run, gardening and traveling (has visited 50 states and more than 65 countries).

>> A favorite quote: “In a democracy, the people get the government they deserve.” — Alexis de Tocqueville

Bonus thought

Having come of age in the early 1960s, I am old enough to have lived through periods of dramatic social and economic turmoil. Those experiences have taught me to respect and honor the strength of our people and appreciate the opportunities each crisis offers to significantly change direction towards a place we would rather be.

We are all blessed to live in such a special place. Our history and people together support a common vision of the thriving community we crave for our future: accessible health care, a diversified economy less dependent on tourism, fair wages that support our basic needs including affordable housing, quality education for our children, a pristine, protected environment and a safe, nurturing community around us.

Our state and county leaders have critical work ahead to deliver on those values. Let’s hope we put ones in who are ready to chart the future we all want.

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