Many longstanding issues facing our community seem to be intractable, but of course they are not.
What is intractable is reconciling the bold ideas with the political reality.
When faced with the political realities of competing interests, inevitably those strategies and plans that start out as a bold vision with potential for transformative and positive change eventually whither away and die, yielding to the dominant political power currently in place.
One of the most difficult issues facing our community is the lack of truly affordable housing.
Housing is considered “affordable” when a household spends less than 30 percent of their income on shelter and utilities and according to county statistics more than half of all Kauai renters and homeowners do not now live in affordable housing. An individual earning $15 per hour (Hawaii’s current minimum wage of $9.25) and working 40 hours per week should pay no more than $720 per month for rent and utilities. And with median annual incomes hovering around $62,000, $400,000 to $500,000 homes are not affordable for the vast majority of Kauai residents.
Thousands of new, affordable housing units, for purchase and for rent, are needed now.
The county and the state could if they had the political fortitude, today take extraordinary and bold action to aggressively develop truly affordable housing, in appropriate locations adjacent to existing urban areas and preserve this housing in perpetuity.
On Kauai’s Westside, the state of Hawaii owns over 10,000 acres of land with a significant portion of it near existing urban areas. Currently leased primarily to the large agrochemical companies, some of this land could easily be rehabilitated and converted to residential use. Small, truly affordable family farms for local residents could buffer the existing residential areas from the larger agricultural operations.
In Lihue, there are potentially thousands of undeveloped yet properly zoned residential house-lots located across from the airport, behind Walmart and near Hanamaulu. The Grove Farm Company has a virtual monopoly on land suitable for residential development in and around Lihue. Rather than accept the land-banking currently occurring, the county could pass carrot/stick laws (tax incentives or dis-incentives and/or density allowances) to motivate the development of this land for affordable housing. Or, the county could purchase the land at fair market value, increase the density as needed to lower the per unit cost to an affordable level and then partner with private, affordable-housing developers to actually build the units.
In every part of our island there are suitable lands available but controlled and land-banked by a handful of corporations, most of whom’s histories extend back to the plantation days.
The county and the state both have the power to borrow money at the very lowest rates needed to purchase the land and provide the essential infrastructure. The increased property taxes resulting from the new developments could be used to pay the costs of that borrowing.
Similarly, the county controls the land-use and permitting process, and arguably the cost and availability of water and sewer facilities.
To help pay for affordable housing the county could increase the property tax on hotels and resorts, on large, undeveloped, residentially zoned lands, and on the vacant homes of absentee owners/investors.
The land base on Kauai is dominated by literally a handful of large landowners. The county could simply draw a line in the sand, implement a moratorium and refuse to approve any new re-zoning of any agricultural lands at all, except for 100 percent truly affordable housing projects located in existing urban areas.
All of the above are potential solutions that could dramatically alleviate the lack of affordable housing on Kauai. And all remain blocked by daunting political challenges designed to protect and preserve the status quo. History tells us that meaningful change will occur only when the community actively engages the issue, demands the change that is needed and exerts its own political power.
Gary Hooser formerly served in the state Senate, where he served as majority leader. He also served for eight years on the Kauai County Council and was the former director of the state Office of Environmental Quality Control during the administration of Gov. Neal Abercrombie. He serves presently in a volunteer capacity as board president of the Hawaii Alliance for Progressive Action (HAPA) and is the volunteer executive director of the Pono Hawaii Initiative.