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Housing official feels homeownership struggle firsthand

COURTESY PHOTO
                                Nani Medeiros.
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COURTESY PHOTO

Nani Medeiros.

Hawaii’s new housing chief doubts that she’ll ever be able to buy a home of her own.

Nani Medeiros, 50, has spent years living paycheck to paycheck as a single mother — the group most at risk of becoming homeless — she told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s “Spotlight Hawaii” livestream program Monday.

Now appointed to the new state Cabinet position of chief housing officer, Medei­ros wants to make owning — or renting — a home more affordable for everyone — the homeless, the middle class and even people who earn more than most — in an effort to dissuade residents from leaving the islands for more affordable communities.

It’s a return to government service for Medeiros, who started out advising former Gov. Linda Lingle, a Republican, on homelessness and housing. Medeiros last worked for a hui of builders and developers called Home­Aid Hawaii, which provided materials, manpower and expertise to build Hawaii’s first kauhale of tiny homes in Kalaeloa to provide permanent homes for homeless clients.

At a cost of $20,000 each, the kauhale concept also might help young workers or kupuna afford a mortgage to buy their own tiny homes and live in a community of like-minded residents, Medeiros said.

The Kona side of Hawaii island just broke ground on that island’s first homeless kauhale, with plans for a second. And there’s interest from Maui and Kauai, too, where a private landowner is interested in donating land for two Garden Isle kauhale sites, Medeiros said.

For housing projects at all levels of income, there is no shortage of issues to work through to make building, buying and renting a home cheaper. Medeiros said she is open to any ideas to lower the cost of housing, and invited anyone wanting to provide input to contact her at Nani.Medeiros@hawaii.gov.

In her first three months as Gov. Josh Green’s nominee, Medeiros is reaching out to every state agency that touches housing and their county counterparts across the state to identify redundancies, with the goal of eliminating rules and regulations that add to housing costs and delays.

She also wants to review legislation that might inadvertently increase the cost of housing. And especially for projects already in the pipeline, Medeiros wants to streamline approvals as long as there are no safety risks.

“If they become stuck, it’s my goal to get them unstuck and move them along,” Medeiros said.

Asked specifically about her involvement in how to spend a record $600 million to help fulfill the promise of housing for Native Hawaiians, Medeiros said her job likely will be coordinating — such as linking the state Department of Hawaiian Home Lands, which builds homesteads, with the state Department of Transportation, which builds roads and highways to gain access to future Hawaiian communities.

Among other ideas, Medeiros suggests:

>> Boosting the size of the state rental subsidy budget to $13 million from $1 million for the next two fiscal years, which would deepen the pool of potential applicants looking for a $500 rental subsidy.

>> Helping to recruit and retain teachers and health care workers by providing loans for employees who can afford a monthly rent of $2,400 but don’t have enough cash on hand for a first and last months’ deposit of $4,800.

>> Developing public and private partnerships for workforce housing, including the possibility of building housing on state Department of Education lands specifically for teachers.

Asked what demographic is being targeted first, Medeiros said: “They’re all a priority. We need to recognize that everybody needs help.

“Our middle class is basically disappearing,” she said, and even people earning more than the average median income are “still struggling to make ends meet. … They’re all important.”

Affordable housing remains a struggle even for those who earn decent salaries — especially families — because Medeiros said that oftentimes “they make too much to get help but too little to get ahead.”

For the state as a whole, Medeiros said that “with housing we’re going to have to take some risks.” If the state falls short, she said, “our people are going to keep leaving, and they’re not going to come back.”

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