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Editorial: Housing relief a top priority

Hopes are high that Hawaii’s non-tourism business sector will start to slowly recover this month, and possibly rebound to healthy levels within the next few years. Meanwhile, stress tied to our visitor-fueled economic engine is expected to persist much longer.

Given that many of the furloughs and layoffs touched off by the coronavirus outbreak are tourism- sector jobs, we should be scrambling now to tackle expected upshots of a rise in housing instability and homelessness problems.

Addressing the state House Select Committee on COVID-19 last week, James Koshiba, co-founder of Hui Aloha, a homeless advocacy group, pointed out that the timing and the scale of these problems are ominous. That’s why, in addition to the current focus on short-term relief, we should redouble pursuit of fixes for long-standing affordable housing woes.

In recent years, Honolulu Hale has estimated that upwards of 20,000 affordable housing units are needed to meet pent-up demand on Oahu. And according to the United Way’s ALICE (Asset Limited Income Constrained Employed) Report for Hawaii, issued in 2018, nearly half of all households statewide are living paycheck-to-paycheck.

Even as government and communities grapple with COVID-19’s economic fallout, Koshiba and others sensibly maintain that expanding the statewide pool of housing and financial counselors should be a top priority. Clearly, demand for counseling will grow as more renters negotiate with landlords; homeless households seek housing; and cash-strapped homeowners without federally backed mortgages negotiate with their lenders or servicers.

“Ideally, the state would issue guidance for both landlords and lenders/servicers on how to structure payment plans and perhaps provide some incentive for them to follow those guidelines,” Koshiba said in an interview with the Star-Advertiser. Such guidance could prevent the loss of homes, thereby helping to fend off deeper economic trouble.

Also poised to help ease rental worries are Section 8 vouchers, which go to low-income households. Due to a softening of the rental housing market, landlords should welcome the reliability of the city-managed program through which participants apply 30% of monthly income to rent, with federal funds covering the balance.

In regard to further expanding the overall inventory of affordable housing, underutilized land and buildings should be sized up for use as permanent affordable housing sites.

Among the encouraging short-term grant efforts is the city’s new “Hardship Relief for Individuals” program, slated to start with $25 million in seed money from the federal coronavirus aid bill. Clearly, there’s need for its stopgap “reimbursements” for household expenses and childcare. But Koshiba rightly suggests that more aid should be offered by way of loans.

Similar to the Paycheck Protection Program, where federal loans for small businesses are forgivable under certain terms, could some rent relief in Hawaii be structured as forgivable or low-interest loans, with no fees and flexible repayment terms?

This approach seems fitting in cases in which an individual who lost a job due to the coronavirus shutdown ends up getting more money per month in unemployment benefits and federal “plus-up” payment than from wages. If this person gets a grant now but ends up with a surplus of cash next month, there’s no set way to recoup grant funds to distribute to someone else in need.

Given that financial aid is not unlimited, there should be an aim to stretch the reach of relief-focused dollars.

“It’s time to broaden our view from immediate emergency relief,” Koshiba noted — and he’s right. In regard to housing challenges, Hawaii needs to pivot more attention to prevention and permanent solutions.

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