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For Maui families to stay on Maui, we need a new affordable housing system

Viewpoint

Our affordable housing system is broken and Maui residents are in a crisis within a crisis. No one can say that past practices have fulfilled the need for affordable housing. So why continue to reach for the same tools in hopes that “maybe they will be the fix this time”? These tools may provide nice headlines, but they don’t produce homes for Maui residents. Recent legislation to address affordable housing stock on Maui was consistent with failed efforts of the past.

In late 2020, the Hawaii Community Foundation launched the House Maui Initiative, committing to play an objective role in creating systems change to help create equitable housing opportunities for Maui residents. We advocate for systemic and holistic solutions that are community driven, based on data and reflective of the needs of Maui families. Our goal is to help dismantle the barriers within government systems and raise the awareness of opportunities on the horizon — to restore hope.

Over the past 30 years, government has transferred the responsibility of building major infrastructure like roads, water, sewer and public facilities from a government role to a direct cost on housing development. This has created an imbalance of risk and cost that exacerbates the ability for the private sector (both for-profit and nonprofit) to deliver affordable housing opportunities for Maui residents. The result has been piecemeal and expensive development of infrastructure on a project-by-project basis that ultimately pits stakeholders against each other attempting to determine where affordable housing should be delivered.

Lack of long-range planning and infrastructure investment has led to unnecessary and counterproductive policy initiatives. Hawaii’s housing market is the most highly regulated in the nation. As a result of Maui’s regulatory environment, the delivery of affordable housing for the lowest-income households is left to a few smaller nonprofit developers who don’t have the sustainable capacity to meet the escalating demand.

Years of disinvestment and mistrust has created a lack of confidence and hope that a family can thrive. And when there is no hope, people’s effort to invest in themselves and the civic process wanes. Everyone should feel empowered with the knowledge that they sit in a seat of democracy and have ownership in the change they want to see. To that end, HCF partnered with Maui County to fund the Financial Opportunity Center in Wailuku. The goal is to help Maui families prepare financially for housing opportunities and engage them in how to be civically active in their community as a necessary element to change the system. Already, 671 families are working with the center to become financially prepared for housing opportunities. We believe that collective engagement can lead to transformative change.

The Maui County Council recently adopted Bill 10, which increases affordable housing requirements for projects that have applied for an accelerated approval process, known as 201H. The legislation increases the required percentage of affordable homes from 50 percent to 75 percent. Despite good intentions by the council and though the bill sounds like good policy for the working class of Maui County, in reality, it is additional regulation that is consistent with unsuccessful past practice. Historical data shows that by making the process harder and more restrictive, fewer projects will be started and fewer state housing dollars will come to the county.

To implement 201H affordable housing, deep government financial subsidies at the state level are needed. As history has shown, without an increase in state funding, requiring a higher percentage of affordable housing actually results in fewer being built. This is because most of the government funds are from the Hawai’i Housing Finance and Development Corporation and are awarded in a competitive market throughout the state. By Maui making its process harder and more restrictive, fewer projects will be started and, therefore, fewer HHFDC dollars will come to Maui County.

Solutions won’t come from reaching into the same toolbox of policies that support a broken system and perpetuate harmful inequities. We at the Hawai’i Community Foundation stand ready to partner with government, stakeholders, and most importantly, Maui residents to help drive systematic change that rebalances inequities that have developed over decades. Maui needs a system that restores hope to families by offering the option of the Valley Isle as their forever home.

* Micah A. Kane is the CEO and president of Hawai’i Community Foundation. The organization recently launched House Maui, an initiative focused on creating equitable housing opportunities for local families.

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