Housing subsidies advance: Council likes the plan, just unsure how to pay for it

  • Elizabeth Strance

  • Heather Kimball


The County Council’s commitment to subsidize affordable housing was expanded last week to include moderate-income families making up to 120% of the average median income, meaning a family of three earning up to $92,520 annually could qualify for a two-bedroom home costing up to $539,000.

“We need to keep our kids home and in order to do that, they need to have a home and they need to be able to afford a house,” said council Chairwoman Maile David, representing South Kona and Ka‘u.


Bill 152, approved 8-0 on the first of two readings Wednesday, would expand programs using money from the county housing program revolving fund from two to nine. Currently, the money can be used for planning design and development of affordable housing units by the county or nonprofit development partners and to exercise any buyback options in conveyance documents.

The measure would add to that the acquisition of land or existing structures for use as affordable housing, rehabilitation of existing structure currently being used for affordable housing, infrastructure for development of affordable housing, subsidies, grants and loans to support households with upfront costs for rental units or mortgage financing and rental or mortgage assistance to prevent homelessness or foreclosure and purchasing deed restrictions on private properties limiting resales to qualified low income and moderate income households.

But where the money will come from remained uncertain as one council member voted no, another voted yes with reservations and three others indicated they may change their yes votes to no on the next reading of a proposed charter amendment that would trim 1% off annual property tax revenues.

The measure, Bill 153, requires three readings by the council and must receive at least six yes votes to proceed before moving to the November ballot, where it must be approved by a majority of voters.

At issue is a legal question that Corporation Counsel Elizabeth Strance provided the council in a confidential 10-page memo. The memo wasn’t made available to the public, but conversations around it seemed to indicate questions about whether the county has the authority to earmark property tax money for a specific class of individuals.

“I’ll vote in favor today,” said Hilo Councilman Aaron Chung, the only attorney on the council. “But I’m putting everyone on notice I need to think about it for a while.”

David and Hilo Councilwoman Sue Lee Loy expressed similar reluctance, while Puna Councilman Matt Kanealii-Kleinfelder voted kanalua before voting yes, indicating questions or reservations about the measure. David said she’d probably schedule an executive session at the next meeting to discuss the matter.

Kohala Councilman Tim Richards, the sole no vote,said he had concerns about handcuffing the county’s ability to budget during difficult economic times by locking expenditures into the charter. Charter amendments have already claimed 3.25% of property tax revenues for special purposes: 2% to purchase open space land, .25% to hire nonprofits to maintain them and 1% for a disaster and emergency fund.

In addition, he said, he worried about the constitutionality of the charter amendment.

North Kona Councilman Holeka Inaba, who along with Hamakua Councilwoman Heather Kimball sponsored both bills, said he didn’t see a legal issue. He urged council members to support the bill.

“When times are hard for those who need affordable housing, that is not the time for us to have latitude and leeway to chicken out as a county and get out of commitments to affordable housing,” Inaba said. “If the county’s struggling, they’re struggling more.”

The legal discussion by the council apparently irked Strance, sending the attorney representing both the council and the administration to the table for a lengthy but controlled monologue.

“I would request any council member that is getting independent legal advice on this matter to either pass the information on to me to evaluate it or have the attorney contact me because there’s a bunch of discussion going on here by people who are not lawyers,” Strance said. “I am concerned that I’m hearing things at this meeting that are legal conclusions that are either developed by non-lawyers or have been provided to council members by lawyers and then it’s not shared with the Office of Corporation Counsel and it’s kind of a gotcha moment. These issues are very important to the county across the boards and my hope would be that everybody would be on the same page to get it right rather than just get something done.”

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