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Council Ridicules Administration Housing ‘Plan’

(Left) DHHC Director Lori Tsuhako and Deputy Director Linda Munsell (right) representing the administration of Maui Mayor Victorino appeared before the Council’s Affordable Housing Committee on August 7th. Council members were critical of their presentation saying it lacked specific recommendations and it could not be called a plan.

The administration’s long-awaited “strategic plan” for affordable/attainable housing was greeted with ridicule and dismay by several members of the Maui County Council attending the Aug. 7th meeting of the council’s Affordable Housing Committee. “This is not a plan,” said Council Chair Kelly King, “There’s no proposal.” King called the presentation “a hamster wheel…a circular exercise. There’s nothing in here we haven’t heard for the last two and a half years.”

Similar sentiments were expressed by Council Vice Chair Keani Rawlins-Fernandez who responded ruefully “I had higher hopes, I was expecting a plan, a plan that would identify parcels, identify the number of houses. Our community is begging for housing,” but she termed what she heard from the administration represented by Lori Tsuhako, Director of the Dept. of Housing and Human Concerns (DHHC) and Deputy Director Linda Munsell, as “stalling.” 

Other council members also reacted to the hour-long presentation given to nearly empty chambers. The consensus seemed to be that in the absence of solid guidance from the administration of Mayor Mike Victorino, now eight months into his four-year term, it was time for the council to take the lead. According to member Riki Hokama, the future emphasis from the council would be ”not what the developer wants from the county, but what the county wants from the builder. We’re not waiting anymore,” he said. Member Mike Molina had a similar reaction, noting he had issued a prior “call to action;” he reiterated,” It’s time to get moving.

The meeting to announce the long-awaited “plan” that was not a plan, played to an almost empty chamber.

Though Tsuhako and Munsell put together a thoughtful and informative session, one that displayed the key terminology, data, and mentioned the many obstacles that stood in the way of building more home for local residents it could hardly be called a plan because there were no specific action recommendations. Though the pair urged focusing on a few key goals – such as the needs of those at the lower end of the income spectrum — no outline or program of how to achieve the desired outcome was provided.

As King noted it gives “no path forward.”

Indeed, as both the director and deputy noted, the task of making “the plan” had proved more complex than they had expected, due in part to the fact that there were so many ghost projects that had received entitlements long ago, but for one reason or another had never been built, and the housing they, in theory, would supply was unlikely to materialize any time soon, making it much harder for the department to get an accurate picture of what was really in the works.

In their bullet points the DHHC presentation emphasized:

  • We need 14,000 units of housing by 2025 to keep up with the need.
  • We anticipate the creation of 5,913 units, a deficit of approx. 9,000 units.
  • Projects may be “in planning” stages to be built, but face barriers that keep them from moving forward.
  • Predominantly the units that are anticipated to be built are in higher Adjusted Median Income (AMI) levels than what we need. 

Their handout explained that “affordable” housing is defined as units with a monthly mortgage or rent payments including utilities that would require no more than 30% of the monthly household income for a household earning a specified percentage of HUD Area Median Income. The Area Median Income for Maui County is $83,300 for a family of four; 80% of AMI is $66,640, but the greatest unmet need is in the brackets below 80% AMI.

They also noted the distinction between “workforce” housing which is defined as 80% to 140% of AMI, and “affordable” housing, which are units affordable to those who earn less than 80%. 

About 70% of the unmet need is for local residents who fall in the “below 80% AMI” brackets. The desire to give preference in affordable and workforce units to existing Maui County residents was stressed by both the administration and the council members. The presentation pointed out that 52 percent of Maui homes are sold to people who do not reside here. 

Among the other topics mentioned were: The need to augment and leverage the impact of county dollars with federal, state and private capital; to make sure that the housing remains affordable for a longer period and that equity is shared with the county so that one time windfalls do not result. There were a number of suggestions to split the department in order to separate the housing function from human concerns. It was also announced that DHHC has hired a development coordinator for its Housing division, a job that begins in September. The duties of the position were not specified. 

(Left) DHHC Director Lori Tsuhako and Deputy Director Linda Munsell (right) representing the administration of Maui Mayor Victorino appeared before the Council’s Affordable Housing Committee on August 7th. Council members were critical of their presentation saying it lacked specific recommendations and it could not be called a plan.

What their appearance before the council committee did highlight was with huge unmet needs and costs pegged “in the billions,” the problem is unlikely to be significantly dented by an affordable housing budget that this year only totals $14 million. But commented the directors, “If we don’t start taking small bites, it will always be too big.” 

Though it was not stated at the meeting it was impossible to ignore that the administration has backed $80 million in county spending for the Wailuku Parking Garage and Civic Center, a project that contains no housing of any kind. The Wailuku project is advancing rapidly. The bid for the garage portion of the project was announced on July 25 and is anticipated in the neighborhood of $30 million (or more than double the amount budgeted for affordable housing countywide.) 

The contrast between the lavish spending to build accommodations for vehicles contrasted with the paltry spending to build homes for Maui residents may prove to be a political liability for Maui Mayor Victorino who made housing one of his top priorities in the 2018 election campaign and now finds himself in an uncomfortable position where a low priority parking garage is fast-tracked while high priority housing is stalled.

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About Susan Halas

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Susan Halas is a Senior Political Contributor at MAUIWatch. She has followed Hawaii politics since 1976 when she moved to the Valley Isle. She was formerly a staff writer for the Maui News as well as other local print and digital publications.

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