City needs a housing agency


POSTED: Monday, November 09, 2009

Ever since my first introduction into social justice and politics in the eviction struggle at Waiahole Waikane in the 1970s, to the struggle at Kukui Gardens last year, I have seen the needs of our people pushed aside. My life has taught me that if we are to have a moral society on our islands, we will have to make it for ourselves. Currently, Honolulu is facing one of its toughest economic downturns where we are seeing families being forced into homelessness. The time is ripe for leadership from our city government to recreate an office of housing to address this crisis.

Faith Action for Community Equity (FACE) is urging Mayor Mufi Hannemann to reestablish the city's Housing Department. Upon serious reflection of the city's proposed River Street Transitional Shelter for the homeless, we believe that the project is emblematic of the deeper problem in our city, namely that housing policy is adrift at the time it is needed most. This problem is at the root of many of the symptoms of inequity on Oahu today. We believe that the problem transcends the visible social ills of homelessness and the failure to create new affordable housing. At the most basic level there is no coordinated housing policy for the City & County of Honolulu. While this would be a serious problem at any time in the county's history, it is particularly glaring now during several consecutive years of the worst housing crisis that Oahu has ever faced.

We see the increasing population of homeless people, the scarcity of affordable rentals, the failure to act to preserve the existing affordable housing stock, the struggles of families facing foreclosure as all traceable to the stark fact that Honolulu has no housing department, and thus no way of crafting strategies to address these problems or to make long range plans to deal with the reality of our current situation. In addition, the lack of a housing department negatively impacts the business of real estate development on Oahu by creating a needlessly complex bureaucracy that is widely criticized for its lack of transparency and coherence.

The River Street project, while it has considerable merit on its own, is not a housing policy. Instead, it is another series of disconnected decisions that undermine each other. This is not the fault of the staff of the various departments—many of whom have performed admirably within their silos; rather it points to the overarching failure of the county to have a single planning body for housing. As we look ahead to the ways that the rail will transform our metropolitan area we are convinced that the county can no longer afford to function without a professional Cabinet-level staff to advise the mayor, and serve both the developers and consumers of housing, affordable and market rate.

The mayor's strong opposition to city involvement in addressing the issues of affordable housing and homelessness is clear. He has said that those are state, not city, issues. He has backed up that position by 1) trying to sell the city's stock of affordable housing and using the proceeds for other purposes; 2) not maintaining these housing projects; 3) not lifting a finger to help the Kukui Gardens residents; 4) refusing to develop and getting in the way of developing coherent affordable housing policies; and 5) systemically evicting the homeless from city parks without seeking alternative shelter for them, resulting in the homeless congregating in Waikiki and Chinatown, where they are a problem for business and industry. This is a large part of the genesis of the River Street Project, which FACE conceptually supports but fears the project will be neglected by the city once it is built.

We therefore call on the mayor to act immediately to initiate the creation of a Cabinet-level housing department—either through the City Council or by direct charter amendment. We suggest that this department administer mortgage assistance, neighborhood stabilization, manage federal pass-through funds, and be given bonding authority.

We further suggest that it be urgently tasked to create a comprehensive strategy in three areas: addressing and reducing homelessness, maximizing the affordable housing opportunity presented by the creation of a rail system; and combating and preventing the spread of foreclosures.

The Rev. Robert Nakata is Oahu president of Faith Action for Community Equity, a grass-roots group of church and community groups.