Don’t make Honolulu’s poorest bear burden of fixing sewers
Bill 57, a resolution creating authorization to spend the windfall from the sale of the city's affordable housing buildings, is currently being discussed by the City Council. This is the first step toward a public policy disaster. The bill is being driven by the city administration's proposal to sell its stock of affordable housing to raise money for the repair of the city's sewers. The City Council should think twice about this -- not because the sewer problem is not serious, but rather because the poorest people in the city should not be asked to bear the cost of fixing it.
There are more than 1,200 units at varying rates of affordability that are at risk of being lost to the market in the event that the sale goes forward. These properties were mostly built by the Harris administration, which might go a long way toward explaining the current mayor's desire to sell them. The buildings represent the best of the legacy of former Mayor Jeremy Harris and are a carefully balanced income mix of working families, lower-income people and seniors. This mix of incomes avoids the previous generation's error of warehousing poor people in public housing, and was farsighted enough to take into account the gradually increasing scarcity of workforce housing.
Currently some of the properties are losing money -- in part due to the fact that they have not seen rent increases in recent years. That is in no small part due to the fact that the city no longer has a housing department -- itself a bewildering situation because affordable housing is the most pressing need the city faces. The fact that they are operating in the red is one reason the city has decided to sell the properties. It is likely that a new owner will have to increase rents on the properties. However, the nature of that increase is very much up for grabs. How the rents change is directly determined by who buys them.
Residents of the buildings have prepared for these sales by creating a "request for qualifications" that aims at defining the kind of buyer the residents would accept. First, residents are seeking a buyer who commits to permanent affordability, either through the deed, the financing or via city regulation. Second, they ask for a buyer with a good track record as an owner of affordable housing. Third, they ask for an owner who will give them some input into repair and management plans. These are simple and direct ways of ensuring responsible ownership.
In light of the ongoing and even worsening housing crisis, it is simply not reasonable to sell these properties under any other scheme. To sell the properties as a way of bailing out the city's sewer problems would reverse the biblical imperative to care for the least of these; instead it asks the least among us to pay for the rest of us. A plan like that is not worthy of the City Council's support.
The Rev. Neal MacPherson is pastor of Church of the Crossroads in Honolulu, which is a member of Faith Action for Community Equity.