It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that the current wave of 225,000-plus unemployed in our state will turn into a huge wave of missed rent and mortgage payments in the months to come as unemployment benefits and CARES Act payments run out. It also doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that our economy, which is so dependent on tourism, will not return to anywhere near its pre-pandemic robustness for at least a couple of years.
So, where does this leave our distressed renters and mortgage borrowers? Up the creek without a roof over their heads is where they will be unless action is taken now.
One possible avenue to pursue is mentioned in your May 11 editorial (“Housing relief a top priority”): “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.”
There is one tool that is available in Honolulu that is sadly not being utilized. That is something called “Bill 7” that was passed into law in May 2019, one year ago, that made it easier to build more badly needed affordable rentals on multi-family zoned lands in Honolulu. The idea behind Bill 7 is simple — take underutilized lands that are already zoned for multifamily dwellings and provide incentives for owners to build affordable rentals — all without government subsidies. One of the incentives was that the city would issue building permits within 90 days after they were submitted.
This bill was passed with great fanfare and support from the business community, lenders and politicians alike as it took underutilized lands to provide infill housing.
The city estimated that an additional 21,000 units could be built in Honolulu under Bill 7. Yet sadly, here we are, one year later and not one Bill 7 building permit has been issued — not one — even after having the promise of the city taking no more than 90 days to issue a permit.
One bureaucratic roadblock after another has been thrown in the way of permit applicants. For example, the city said that a required affidavit was not filed with the application — but only because the city had not written an approved form. Also, other manini issues have been raised that required some coordination within city departments that had not been ironed out internally to the dismay of applicants — leading to delay after delay.
Too bad. The city can’t seem to get out its own way to get admittedly badly needed affordable rentals built. It says one thing, but then acts another way.
The city should instead do two things:
>> Get going on the building permits and get rid of the red tape holding builders back on Bill 7 projects. This just needs some political “will” power (as opposed to the current “won’t” power).
>> Use part of its CARES Act or other federal new employment money to provide a cash incentive for these projects to be built and built in a hurry. It would be amazing to see what at 5% cash incentive could do to get projects built in a hurry.
This would go a long way to help to reduce the housing issues that we all can see are coming down the road.
Marshall Hung is a retired affordable housing developer.