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Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell signs watered-down Energy Code revision, changes to affordable rental law

  • Video courtesy Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell

    Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell on Thursday signed a bill that overhauls the city's Energy Code to include, among other things, a requirement that builders set aside a certain number of its parking stalls to accommodate the charging of electrical vehicles.

  • Video courtesy Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell

    Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell on Thursday signed a bill that overhauls the city's Energy Code to include, among other things, a requirement that builders set aside a certain number of its parking stalls to accommodate the charging of electrical vehicles.

  • BRUCE ASATO / BASATO@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                Honolulu Mayor Caldwell signed Bill 25 into law Thursday, providing an advanced energy code and creating jobs from green energy projects. He also signed Bill 60, relating to affordable rental housing, as part of the city’s COVID-19 economic recovery.

    BRUCE ASATO / BASATO@STARADVERTISER.COM

    Honolulu Mayor Caldwell signed Bill 25 into law Thursday, providing an advanced energy code and creating jobs from green energy projects. He also signed Bill 60, relating to affordable rental housing, as part of the city’s COVID-19 economic recovery.

Builders will need to set aside a certain number of parking stalls to accommodate the charging of electrical vehicles under a bill signed into law Thursday by Mayor Kirk Caldwell that revamps the city Energy Code.

Meanwhile, Caldwell signed a separate bill, aimed at helping builders create more affordable rental units, that some critics believe gives away too many concessions for too little in return.

Thursday’s news conference was held at the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Ho‘okupu Center where a year ago Caldwell delivered his seventh State of the City address and announced an Oahu Resilience Strategy as a road map for how the city will deal with climate change, sea-level rise and related issues.

“Both (bills) deal with affordability,” Caldwell said. “We’re putting in place the infrastructure to begin to go to a different place as we come out of this (COVID-19) pandemic, a place where our children can afford to live not only now, but for generations to come.”

An earlier version of Bill 25 (2019) that had been backed by the Caldwell administration called for the insertion of more stringent requirements into the Energy Code. But that met with stiff resistance from developers, Hawaii Gas and worker unions.

When the City Council passed the bill last month, the Blue Planet Foundation and other environmental groups voiced displeasure that it did not include language that would have disallowed builders or property owners from opting out of installing solar water heaters and instead install gas heaters by obtaining a variance from the Hawaii State Energy Office.

As approved, the bill reaffirms the state law that such a variance can be sought.

People on the opposite end of the spectrum also weren’t happy with the outcome.

The Building Industry Association of Hawaii warned that the new code would add to the cost of building houses at the worst possible time. The Hawaii Construction Alliance, meanwhile, said the EV charging stall requirement is based on the premise that there will be a high demand for electric vehicles despite the economic downturn.

Bill 25’s passage means every new home that is being built on Oahu will be ready for the installation of photovoltaic units and electric vehicle charging stations, said Josh Stanbro, executive director of the city Office of Climate Change, Sustainability and Resiliency.

The construction industry and clean energy are two pillars that will help Honolulu climb out of the economic downturn due to the coronavirus, he said.

“Bill 25 is going to open up possibilities for folks who are living in homes to have solar on their rooftops at a less expensive price, and have their transportation be electric, which already costs less to own and operate,” Stanbro said.

Honolulu continues to have the highest per capita solar use in the nation, three times that of San Diego, he said.

As passed, the bill requires every new home to be EV-charger ready and all new parking lots be built with 25% of the stalls wired for electric vehicle chargers.

The electric chargers are optional, but 25% of stalls must be equipped to have the chargers installed.

Brian Kealoha, Hawaii Energy executive director, said his agency is providing financial incentives to those affordable housing developers who install EV chargers.

“It makes sure that every new building that is built has at least the capacity, the wiring to be there to plug in when the time is right when you decide you want to move to an electrical vehicle because you’re going to save more money with that car,” Stanbro said.

At Thursday’s news conference, Caldwell said that despite the compromises, the bill represented a “good first step toward a more green and resilient future. … We’d always like more, but we also live in the world of reality and compromise.”

Council Zoning Chairman Ron Menor agreed. “While there are those who may feel that Bill 25 doesn’t go far enough, I really believe that it does move us in a positive direction in addressing the critical issue of climate change while also establishing a legal framework in which that issue can be addressed by policymakers and the community.”

Also at the news conference, Caldwell signed Bill 60 (2019), which eases the restrictions of a year-old, five-year pilot program aimed at giving owners and builders of affordable rental projects incentives of $1 million or more in exchange for committing to keep the units’ monthly rental prices within federally established affordable housing guidelines.

It’s another bill that drew heated discussion at Council meetings.

The original law required the affordable rent caps be in place in perpetuity, but the new bill requires now that they be kept at those prices for only 15 years.

Former hotel executive Mel Kaneshige, an advocate of the new bill, said many property owners were reluctant to jump into the game because of the previous language. The Department of Planning and Permitting said only two applications had been received, and no approvals had been issued.

Kaneshige said at least a dozen property owners are now willing to move forward with the new language. Altogether, those projects would bring online 465 affordable rentals by the end of 2021.

“That’s significant,” Caldwell said, adding that “there’s thousands of potential units that can be built in the coming years.”

Based on 2019 Department of Housing and Urban Development guidelines, rents would be about $2,200 a month for studios and $2,800 for one-bedroom units, Kaneshige said.

“It cannot be emphasized enough that the need for affordable rentals has reached crisis proportions,” Menor said, noting that the pandemic has only heightened that need.

But Kathy Sokugawa, the city’s acting planning director, raised serious concerns at last month’s Council meeting. “We fashioned the incentives around a perpetually affordable building,” she said. “I’m hoping the Council understands that’s a major change in the way the program was originally adopted.”

The slew of incentives available to landowners and builders include greater density, taller allowable heights, less setback, no required parking, waivers from building permit application and wastewater facilities charges, no park dedication fees and a 10-year waiver on property taxes.

“We’re trying to get more affordable rentals built in a city where very few ever get built,” Caldwell said in response to bill critics. “We could make affordability in perpetuity, but it doesn’t mean you get any units built, and with no units built, no one wins.”

For more background on both of these bills, see the Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s previous coverage at bit.ly/2AC4kBJ.

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