Councilwoman seeks affordable housing fund

HILO — The Big Island’s shortage of affordable housing is reaching the crisis stage, says a County Council member sponsoring a nonbinding resolution pushing for the creation of an affordable housing fund.

Resolution 431, sponsored by Puna Councilwoman Ashley Kierkiewicz, advocates a multi-pronged approach to significantly expand affordable housing opportunities, including the creation of an affordable housing fund, the establishment of a county housing coalition and the development of a comprehensive housing plan.

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Kierkiewicz points out the median household income for Hawaii County in 2017 was $56,395, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, while housing prices made the dream of home ownership out of reach. The current median price of homes is $649,900 in Kailua-Kona, $389,000 in Hilo, $199,085 in Pahoa, and $400,000 for Hawaii County as a whole, Kierkiewicz notes in the resolution, citing online real estate database company Zillow.

“Where are the 19,000 housing units we need by 2025? Where’s the strategic plan,” Kierkiewicz said Thursday. “We don’t have a comprehensive plan. I think we can all agree that affordable housing is something we want for our community. How can we quit sitting here and spinning our wheels?”

Kierkiewicz is asking the county to put money into its 2020-21 budget for a study into the county’s current programs and recommendations on how to proceed. She noted Maui County hired a consultant to do this, and has also dedicated a certain percentage of property taxes to go into an affordable housing fund.

“If we’re going to be serious about this, we need to put some money behind it,” she said.

At the same time, according to the resolution, the county is falling down on the job.

Kierkiewicz cites two studies mandated by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development and Hawaii Housing Finance and Development Corp. that she says showed deficiencies. A 2018-19 study had a one-year goal of creating 286 affordable housing units, yet none were created.

Another study, needed to obtain and maintain certain federal and state grant funding, lists 19 actions the county Office of Housing and Community Development will undertake to reduce or remove affordable housing barriers, “yet the status on some of these actions remains questionable,” the resolution says.

Housing Administrator Duane Hosaka, who’s been in that position just a couple of months, said some of the perceived shortcomings are a reflection on how data is collected and categorized for HUD reports.

A good portion of the annual $2.5 million federal Community Development Block Grant funding has gone to repairing the county’s existing facilities, rather than building new projects. Ensuring existing projects remain habitable is an important component, he said.

Still, Hosaka said, “we can always do better.”

The island’s lack of infrastructure, particularly water systems, is the biggest roadblock to affordable housing, Hosaka said.

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“Water is the key,” he said. “If we could get water our projects would move much faster and not such a cost to developers and make them more affordable.”

The resolution is scheduled to be heard by the Finance Committee at 10:30 a.m. Tuesday in Hilo council chambers. The public can also participate via videoconference from the West Hawaii Civic Center, Waimea and Pahoa council offices, the old Kohala courthouse and the Naalehu state office building.

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