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Progress on attainable housing is No. 1 priority

Our County

Mahalo to Gov. David Ige and members of our state House and Senate delegations for taking legislative action to prevent more than 250 low-income Front Street Apartments residents in Lahaina from becoming homeless.

On June 7, the governor signed into law House Bill 543, now Act 98. I lobbied for this important measure that reinforces action taken last year through Act 150.

That earlier bill required the Hawaii Housing Finance and Development Corp. to initiate negotiations and exercise its power of eminent domain to acquire the ground lease for the 142-unit Front Street Apartments. Now, this recently passed measure calls for the state to acquire the leased fee and fee simple interests in the Front Street complex.

HHFDC is making progress, executing a purchase and sale agreement with the landowner and approving a Dwelling Unit Revolving Fund budget of $15 million for acquisition of the leased-fee interest.

The measure also gives an additional year and appropriates another $7 million (for a total of $37 million) for the state to develop 200 rental units at the Keawe Street Apartments at Leialii in West Maui. Now, the aim is to have that project completed by 2022.

The Front Street Apartments were developed in 2001 using state financing and tax credits. These units were expected to remain as affordable housing for low-income tenants for 50 years. However, the apartment owners have announced plans to use a federal tax code loophole that allows them to raise rents to market rates this year unless they’re able to find a buyer.

With Maui County already experiencing a desperate housing shortfall, we cannot afford to lose these units from West Maui’s housing inventory and displace many longtime residents, many of whom are kupuna or disabled.

This legislative action supported by my administration is just one of many ongoing initiatives aimed at making progress toward my top priority, development of attainable housing for our residents. With housing costs continuing to climb, it wasn’t surprising that a recent study of the perspectives of Hawaii residents would find that what causes the most anxiety for 74 percent of those surveyed is the lack of affordable housing.

I appreciate Council Member Mike Molina’s recent “Call to Action” in favor of more progress on attainable housing, but let me reassure him and everyone that my administration is working diligently to make progress on my No. 1 priority.

My administration already is moving forward with initiatives that include partnering with developers, nonprofits and others to find innovative solutions. We’re also assessing available county-owned land for attainable housing development.

One such project is my administration’s proposal to develop low-income housing at the former University of Hawaii Maui College dormitories. I appreciate the County Council’s recent approval of my request for an intergovernmental agreement to gain access to $5 million in state funding for that project to move families from transitional shelter into permanent housing with supportive services attached.

The administration has convened a working group, the Attainable Housing for Maui Nui Working Group, to remove roadblocks and develop housing as quickly as possible.

Also, in my first budget submission to the County Council, I proposed and gained approval of additional money for affordable housing tied to a percentage of real property tax revenue. With the council-approved budget, the estimated revenue in fiscal 2020 for the Affordable Housing Fund will come to more than $14 million. This funding will allow my administration to explore and plan for much-needed attainable housing for our working families.

I’m hopeful Mr. Molina will work with my administration to generate the political will to take meaningful action toward developing the thousands of housing units needed by our community. As a former council member myself, I know how difficult it can be to approve attainable housing projects that face opposition.

But it’s important to remember that there’s no perfect housing project. We can expect concerns about traffic, infrastructure, the environment and cultural resources. Such questions must be addressed, and costs and benefits carefully weighed while conducting environmental assessments, obtaining permits and complying with all applicable laws.

These all take time and patience, but we cannot make progress without taking steps on this journey together.

* “Our County,” a column from Maui County Mayor Michael Victorino, discusses county issues and activities of county government. The column usually appears on the first and third Fridays of the month.