Affordable housing and homelessness were at the forefront of Mayor Rick Blangiardi’s first State of City address Monday.
The city’s Office of Housing has been changed to reflect that focus, and is now the Office of Housing and Homelessness.
“We know there are plenty of people out there without enough money and who are living on the streets,” Blangiardi said.
“We are committed to confronting the homeless issues that are impacting so many of our communities.”
City Council Chair Tommy Waters introduced a bill on the mayor’s behalf to create incentives for private landowners to build affordable housing using financial grants.
“The same old tired solutions to our affordable housing crisis is clearly not the answer. It hasn’t worked for 30 years,” Blangiardi said.
“Historically, government has not been good about building affordable housing. It takes a long time, and a lot of money to get off the ground, and candidly it has not been profitable.”
Revitalizing Chinatown was another priority, which includes progressing Halewai‘olu Senior Residences, the stalled affordable housing project for seniors.
The city is also receiving $114 million in federal and state funding for a Rent and Utility Relief Program that struggling residents can apply for, and use for up to 12 months. The program is expected to start at the end of this month into early April.
The city is also expected to receive $395 million from the American Rescue Plan, which was signed into law by President Joe Biden on Thursday. The Blangiardi administration is still deciding how those funds will be spent.
“We just learned that number last week,” Blangiardi said to reporters after the speech.
“There’s going to be more latitude given to the counties, as we understand. And so there’s also a longer timeline.”
The city has until September 2025 to spend those funds.
Blangiardi also emphasized the need to modernize city services, making building permits more accessible, streamlining the drivers license renewal process and using a new data center to scan and store city documents.
In response to the recent flooding across Oahu, the city will be investing in infrastructure to better manage natural disasters such as dredging bodies of water, channel wall reconstruction and assessing drainage outfalls that lead to the ocean.
Honolulu Department of Emergency Management Director Hiro Toiya explained the city is still assessing the damages from the flood because of delays caused by continued rain.
“Today we have teams out, going door to door in those areas to complete the assessment. So hopefully by the end of the day, today or tomorrow, we will have completed those assessments,” he said.
After the damage assessment is completed, the city can submit it to see if it qualifies for any state and federal assistance.
“This is not the the quick help that residents might be hoping for. It does take potentially weeks until that assistance comes in,” Toiya said.
He encouraged people to reach out to nonprofits and community groups such as Aloha United Way’s 211 number for immediate assistance.
Blangiardi identified rail as the city’s biggest project and is focused on closing the funding gap.
“The project is being reengineered with a fresh perspective, especially along the Dillingham corridor,” he said.
“Shifting the route slightly will prevent the costly relocation of utilities. However, it will take the cooperation with landowners to make it happen.”
The city is also looking at federal bailout programs to help close the gap.
The city is facing a budget with a $73 million hole, and the City Council is continuing to assess Blangiardi’s budget proposal in briefings through the week. One issue was pension spiking due to excessive overtime pay to Honolulu Police Department officers. The mayor is still working on a plan to fix that issue.
To balance the budget without raising property taxes or furloughing employees, Blangiardi proposed a city hiring freeze and pausing contributions to retirees’ health care benefits.
Blangiardi closed with a sports analogy: “Great things happen when no one cares who gets the credit,” he said. “Our team brings that mentality to the city because we will make our island better, together.”