Maui voters weigh ballot proposal to create separate housing department

The need to increase the availability of housing that residents can afford has been the No. 1 campaign issue for most Maui County election candidates.

In addition to selecting the candidates they believe can best achieve this, Maui voters this year will also be asked to decide whether their local government should have a stand-alone department dedicated to creating homes that residents can both “allow and achieve”.

Maui has a Department of Housing and Human Affairs. With nearly 160 staff, the department oversees a range of projects that include providing immigrant services, running the county office on aging, addressing homelessness and supporting the early childhood resource center. of Maui, in addition to managing affordable housing programs.

The measure that will be on the ballot for the Nov. 8 election asks whether the county should split this department into two separate entities — a human concerns department and a new housing department, which would have a Hawaiian liaison officer. Home Lands and advised by a board of housing policy and industry experts.

Developer Mike Atherton has been working for nearly two decades to build Waikapu Country Town on former sugar cane land in central Maui.
Maui County has partnered with a developer this year to build more homes in Waikapu that will be sold to residents at prices below the typical market rate. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2022

The proposal is one of 13 that voters are being asked to consider as part of a once-in-a-decade process that puts the responsibility of residents of Maui, Molokai and Lanai to change how their local government works. Other proposals include whether the county should operate as a bilingual government and require greater government transparency.

Of all these proposalsestablishing the housing department is one of the costliest, according to a recent county audit report, which estimated it could cost an additional $2 million a year.

Critics have sounded the alarm over the costs of creating a new department and questioned whether it is necessary when a housing division already exists within the current department.

But the measure has garnered broad support among current and former county officials who say the change is long overdue.

“Some people may be a little skeptical because of the expense…It’s not cheap,” said Alice Lee, Maui County Council president. “But in the long term I think it will be worth it, because in the past we relied too much on private developers to provide our affordable housing.”

For decades, Maui families have struggled to make ends meet in a community where wages have not kept up with rising housing costs. Lee served as director of the Department of Housing and Human Affairs for eight years from 1999 and said she was acutely aware of the problem even then.

The problem affects the island’s workforce. “A lot of them are moving because they can’t afford to buy a house here,” she said.

The Valley Isle needed more affordable housing for working families, but relied almost solely on private developers to build them, Lee said. Often this meant that housing projects were planned on stretches of undeveloped land – sometimes previously intended for agriculture – that lacked sewers and water pipes. This has increased the costs for developers to build there, and subsequently for residents buying or renting homes.

Residents have also often protested the developments, not wanting to see the open space expand.

At the same time, Lee said, the housing division had to compete with other personnel and resource programs within the Department of Housing and Human Affairs. A separate housing department would solve that problem, she said.

The new department could focus on working with communities and other county departments to identify county-owned land and property that is already close to businesses, roads, sewers and water lines. The government could act as a developer, paying contractors to build homes for sale or rent at affordable rates.

Wailea in South Maui
The typical cost of a house in Maui is around $1 million, which is hundreds of thousands of dollars more than a few years ago. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2022

Council member Yuki Lei Sugimura opposes the proposal, saying the county does not need to bear the additional costs of hiring a new director, deputy and administrative support and of office that accompanies the creation of a brand new department. Additionally, she said, the council already allocated more money to the current housing division to hire more staff to meet demand earlier this year.

“Now is not the time to start new departments or incur unnecessary costs,” Sugimura said. “Our economy is fragile.

Instead, she suggested that county officials take a more active role in reviewing known options to reduce development costs: building the roads, sewers, sidewalks and water systems needed to construction.

“You’re not going to create more (housing) because you’re creating another department and more expense,” Sugimura said.

Maui’s housing crisis spun out of control after the coronavirus pandemic hit in March 2020, pushing the island’s unemployment rate to 35%. In the months that followed, an influx of out-of-state buyers — often offering silver, above asking price — flocked to Maui, driving prices to record highs. The price of a typical home now stands at around $1.15 million, about $375,000 more than just two years ago, according to real estate data.

Construction of Kihei High School
Many longtime Maui families have been sold during the pandemic. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2022

Making homes “affordable” for Maui families often means renting or selling them for less than it costs to build them.

The new county housing department would be tasked with finding ways to fund projects so that final rent and selling costs are within the financial reach of residents. He will also be responsible for exploring other models of housing provision, such as community land trusts, which typically rely on organizations such as non-profits owning the underlying land and selling or renting it out. buildings at affordable prices.

Dave DeLeon, who spearheaded the proposal while serving on the charter commission, said the creation of the new department would help ensure those responsible in charge have the knowledge and expertise to get homes built. .

For decades Maui lagged behind, said DeLeon, who is now retired but worked for former mayors Linda Lingle and Alan Arakawa before becoming government affairs director for the Maui Realtors Association. A 2019 state studyfor example, estimated that Maui would need 10,000 homes by 2025 to meet demand.

“Can you imagine if you were in Northern California right now and your community didn’t have a fire department?” said DeLeon. “We’re in the same kind of housing crisis, and we don’t have a housing department.”

Coverage of Maui County by Civil Beat is funded in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation and the Fred Baldwin Memorial Foundation.

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