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Editorial: Practical goals for cash-poor city

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Projecting can-do sentiment in his first State of the City address, delivered on Monday, Mayor Rick Blagiardi and his recently assembled leadership team are focused on “getting things done” within the constraints of a cash-strapped budget. That means on heavyweight problems, such as Oahu’s affordable housing shortage, proposals in the works are largely limited to relatively lightweight fixes for now.

Some significant heft, though, should come swiftly, thanks to $114 million in federal funds — flowing from the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package — for a rent and utility relief program for qualifying Oahu residents.

The program, which can provide up to 12 months of financial help, will surely serve as a necessary stopgap for struggling households. When Hawaii’s moratorium on residential evictions — now in place for 11 months — is lifted, back rent will come due, eventually. To help tenants who cannot pay rent and utility bills due to COVID-19’s economic fallout, the city must set up an easy-to-navigate application process as well as efficient vetting of eligibility.

Also encouraging in Blangiardi’s address was a vigorous push to continue modernizing city services — including a computerized overhaul of the Department of Planning and Permitting’s building permit process, which is expected to speed up the overall process and enhance transparency by allowing people to track permit status online.

In addition, the Department of Information Technology has just created a vehicle, called H-N-L Pay, which clears the way for electronic payment for city permits, licenses and other transactions. This long-overdue shift to paperless and automated operations will be key to maintaining smooth government operations if the city’s instituted hiring freeze of some 2,000 vacant positions remains, as Blangiardi says it will. The budget-savings freeze will have exceptions on a case-by-case basis, and first-responders jobs are exempt.

Blangiardi’s proposal for fiscal year 2022 spending, which starts in July, includes a $2.9 billion operating budget — complete with cost-saving moves, such as deferring a nearly $140 million contribution to retirees’ health care benefits. But even with such belt-tightening, the operations plan is still $73 million less than what was proposed a year ago.

Among the upshots, funding to tackle thorny affordable housing and homelessness needs is in short supply. In a follow-up to his election campaign pitch to incentivize private landowners to build affordable units, Blangiardi is touting Bill 1, a pilot program of grants for developers who build rental units targeted at residents making less than the area median income.

This measure comes on the heels of a city ordinance enacted last year that offers developers other carrots — ranging from relaxed density, height and setback rules to no parking requirement, and a 10-year waiver on property taxes — in exchange for capping rents at government-set affordable rates for 15 years.

Supporters of Bill 1 maintain that due to pandemic- related economic uncertainty, the addition of grants of up to $10,000 per unit is needed to accelerate construction. In this case, the city’s initial allocation would make but a tiny dent in the vast inventory shortage, covering fewer than three dozen units.

In written testimony on Bill 1, the nonprofit Hawaii Budget and Policy Center persuasively asserted that housing initiatives that receive taxpayer subsidies should limit rent prices to below-market rates for the location. Further, affordability should be preserved for the long-term — in perpetuity, preferably.

Blangiardi’s no-nonsense, workmanlike remarks hit the appropriate tone for a city struggling out of a brutal pandemic year. And he rightly pointed out that teamwork — on local, state and federal levels — will be needed in large supply to make strides on the economic road ahead.

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