Monday, Feb. 26, 2024 |
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One of Gov. Josh Green’s pledges on Day 1 in office was to provide more housing — a difficult task made monumental by the devastating Maui wildfires exacerbating Hawaii’s shortage of available and affordable places to live.
Before the fires, Green issued a series of emergency proclamations to underscore the urgency of producing 50,000 new houses across the state. But the result was a lawsuit that the governor told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser “surprised” him coming from allies in the push for housing, including the Sierra Club.
The new administration began Dec. 5, 2022, and Green said he would move quickly but make adjustments to new initiatives like his “Build Beyond Barriers” working group created through an emergency proclamation. The move came under immediate criticism and the Sierra Club filed suit.
The legal challenge was withdrawn only after Green issued a subsequent emergency proclamation that clarified the panel would have no role in developing housing in Lahaina following the Aug. 8 wildfires and would be subject to Hawaii’s “Sunshine Law” meant to ensure government transparency.
Green said in a Star-Advertiser interview reflecting on his first year in office that he was disappointed that critics did not “trust” that he would make adjustments to efforts to move quickly on issues that have been problems for generations, like creating more affordable housing.
Green said there was widespread support for his other early efforts:
—Provide tax breaks for financially struggling families.
—Erect Hawaii’s first-of-its kind medical respite kauhale in only seven weeks in between the governor’s mansion and The Queen’s Medical Center for homeless people who disproportionately make costly emergency medical room visits.
—Free $50 million in grants-in-aid to help 180 nonprofit groups that had been stalled under his predecessor, Gov. David Ige.
—Ensure women’s reproductive rights following a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that gave states the option to ban abortions.
—A push for a successful gun buyback program that he called “an unprecedented success.”
—“Super charging” the defueling of the Navy’s Red Hill fuel storage facility five months ahead of schedule following years of undisclosed leaks that contaminated Oahu’s drinking water, among other popular moves.
But the governor said when it comes to getting thousands of affordable homes online quickly, critics also need to “trust” that he will not develop housing in environmentally and culturally sensitive areas or disregard other concerns.
“I understand and respect other opinions but if we really want to build housing for local families, people need to let me do it,” Green said.
“If we can apply that same kind of trust (afforded to the other efforts) to our housing plans, we’d also see a lot more housing getting started and that’s going to continue to be one of our huge battles. Everyone needs to get on the same page. … More than anything, that’s going to help people afford to stay in Hawaii.”
The quickest way to provide more housing, Green believes, would be to encourage owners of short-term, vacation rental units to switch to long-term housing for residents through tax breaks. On Maui, Green also is working with Mayor Richard Bissen and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide above market-rate rent to owners who dedicate their units to thousands of displaced wildfire survivors.
Under his housing emergency proclamation, Green also has the power to issue a moratorium on short-term vacation rentals across the state, which likely would lead to another lawsuit.
“We need to hit the reset button and figure this out,” he said.
The upcoming legislative session that begins in January likely will be dominated by debates over how to best leverage federal and state funds to further help fire survivors recover, along with discussions over what comes next for devastated parts of Maui. The fires in Upcountry Maui and Lahaina gutted the historic town, killing at least 100 and destroying some 3,000 structures. It resulted in the shutdown of tourism in West Maui, a major economic impact to the entire state.
Going into his second legislative session as governor, Green plans to propose dedicating a share of hotel transient accommodations taxes to offsetting the impacts of tourists on the environment and to dealing with climate change.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of visitors to Hawaii had exploded to 10.4 million arrivals in 2019, straining local resources and escalating tensions between Hawaii’s 1.5 million residents and tourists.
The negative impacts from overtourism — including littering, crowded beaches, damage to coral reefs, traffic snarls and desecration of sacred places — has led to discussions around reducing the number of visitors and levying impact fees.
“It’s time for us to assess some sort of climate impact fee,” Green said.
Doing so might result in “a slight decrease in the number of visitors on the lowest end of the travel spectrum,” he said.
He threw out that any TAT revenue loss could possibly be offset by offering a tax break to residents who stay in Hawaii hotels.
At the same time, Green might introduce legislation to help ease the transition of short-term vacation rentals into long-term housing for island residents.
“This is the time for the Legislature to take this up,” Green said.
His ideas include the possibility of an emergency moratorium on short-term rentals, incentives through tax breaks for property owners or a combination of both.
For the long term, Green said, “I’m going to take very strong action if necessary.”
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