No. 1 issue for W. Maui council hopefuls: Housing that’s affordable

The three candidates vying for the West Maui County Council seat may come from widely varied backgrounds, but they all agree on one thing – West Maui needs more affordable housing.

“I don’t know anybody that can say we don’t need affordable housing. Just show me a home in Lahaina under $500,000,” said Ka’ala Buenconsejo, 41, who works as director of marketing for Hoaloha Na Ekolu (Old Lahaina Luau, Aloha Mixed Plate, Star Noodle and Leoda’s Kitchen & Pie Shop).

“It’s tough out there. I have a tough time myself. If we continue to go in the same line we’re in, I get scared for our children,” said the father of three.

Buenconsejo said he believes the county’s residential workforce housing ordinance should be amended to make it easier for developers to build housing projects. Instead of requiring them to price 50 percent of their units as affordable, developers should only be required to affordably price 25 percent, Buenconsejo said. The county could incentivize developers to build more affordable units by offering tax exemptions only on those units, not on the market-priced ones.

“The developers aren’t moving on anything now because of all these fees and costs it takes to get a project (approved by the county),” Buenconsejo said. “I would like to see us work together instead of against each other.”

The Baldwin High School graduate said that, if elected, he would use his public relations experience – and prior experience as a mortgage loan officer for Bank of Hawaii – to negotiate with developers and landowners to stimulate affordable housing developments responsibly, ensuring infrastructure, natural and cultural resources would not be damaged by the new developments. Buenconsejo said one of his goals is to restore historic sites in Lahaina, like Moku’ula “so everyone can enjoy.”

Rick Nava, 55, who owns MSI Maui photo, video and graphics company, has two children. Speaking from experience, the Lahainaluna graduate said more affordable housing would make it easier for young people who have moved away to return home.

“This year, my daughter finally graduated school in Las Vegas. One of the things that wasn’t appealing for my daughter to return home to Maui is, ‘Well, where are we gonna stay?’ I told her I have a space for her in the garage,” Nava said with a laugh.

“As I talk to young people, it’s hard to locate affordable homes. A lot of people have to work two, maybe three jobs just to have these homes. Is that really the kind of family we want to have?” Nava asked.

If elected, Nava said he would work to streamline the permitting process for certain developments.

“The permitting process takes so long, the developer is waiting for that while they’re paying mortgage and interest, so these costs end up getting passed on to the buyer,” Nava said.

Nava has been involved in the Rotary Club of Lahaina since 1993 and has also held leadership positions with the Maui Chamber of Commerce, the Maui Filipino Community Council and other groups.

He said it is important for council members to hear from their constituents, and he said he plans to host quarterly “talk story” sessions in the community with chili and rice.

While this is the first political bid for both Nava and Buenconsejo, incumbent Elle Cochran, 49, has already been elected to her Maui County Council seat twice – first in 2010 and again in 2012 when she ran unopposed.

Touted by many as an environmentalist, Cochran was a founder of the Save Honolua Coalition, a nonprofit group that pushed for the preservation in perpetuity of Lipoa Point; she introduced a mandatory pesticides and GMO labeling bill early this year; and recently has been pushing for a countywide styrofoam food container ban.

She chairs the council’s Infrastructure and Environmental Management Committee.

Cochran agreed that the county needs more affordable housing, but the issue is “one of those battle cries that everyone says at every election, but the years go by and nothing gets built.”

As a council member, Cochran said she knows that “there is a lot of affordable housing owed to this county” from developments that has already been approved. If re-elected, she said she intends to hold developers to their word.

“We’ve given them time, and they promise the affordable part, well, decades later, nothing,” Cochran said.

She said the council is revising its Residential Workforce Housing ordinance to include conditions that mandate developers to break ground on promised affordable housing units prior to or concurrent to the building of market-priced homes.

The councilwoman added the importance of keeping the units affordable in perpetuity, instead of allowing the units to become market-priced after a certain number of years.

While she has learned a lot in the past four years, Cochran said there is more she hopes to do.

“I definitely enjoy my job because I learn so much and get to do some good things for this community,” Cochran said.

* Eileen Chao can be reached at

**Editor’s note: This story is a continuation of Maui News coverage of contested election races for state and county political offices. The primary election is Saturday. Winners advance to the Nov. 4 general election.