Poised for passage this Wednesday is Bill 2774, the most significant piece of legislation considered by the County Council this year on the most important issue facing Kauaʻi pre-COVID and post-COVID: The dire need for affordable housing.
Bill 2774 seeks to amend the county’s housing law, Ordinance 860, which codifies the use of inclusionary zoning, a tool used by the county to provide affordable housing for 40 years. Examples include Kawaihau Estates, Kolopua, ‘Ele‘ele Nani, Pa‘anau, Koa‘e, Halelani and Hokulei.
Tool that housed many families about to be gutted
The bill exempts from the county’s affordable-housing requirement all lands zoned for housing in the town cores of Lihu‘e, Koloa and Kalaheo, as well as any multifamily housing outside of a Visitor Destination Areas.
In the very places where we want to encourage growth, where we are pouring incentives and subsidies, where infrastructure is likely to be provided, where a car will be less needed (lowering family transportation costs), councilmembers supporting the exemptions are refusing to ensure that there will be affordable housing in these neighborhoods.
Based on estimates provided by the county Planning Department, the proposed exemptions would forgo the opportunity to require potentially 630 affordable units to be built as the exempted lands are being developed.
Councilmembers who support the exemptions say there will be affordable units in the town cores anyway because by exempting development from affordable-housing requirements, we will be encouraging development, thereby encouraging a greater number of units to be built, and thus bringing the price down.
They forget that the lack of infrastructure might not allow a supply large enough in a given time period to lower prices.
They also fail to recognize that COVID-free Kaua‘i is becoming a mecca for wealthy COVID “refugees” fleeing the mainland and seeking a safe and beautiful place to live, creating a demand that will keep the price for land and housing high.
Why would a developer want to sell the units for less if he can get higher prices and doesn’t have to provide affordable housing?
Some planners also cite a theory called “affordable by design.” They say that because the units will be smaller, they will be affordable. Less than a mile from Po‘ipu in Koloa town, or in beautiful Kalaheo, apartments will be affordable without a government requirement?
Several proponents admit that Bill 2774 is an experiment, but “only for 10 years.” Are we going to wait for 10 years to say, “Oh, shucks! We should have required those 630 units of affordable housing!”? Especially when we already know from the 40 years of stellar work by former housing directors, Chad Taniguchi, Mattie Yoshioka, Ken Rainforth and Gary Mackler what works and doesn’t work. (Former Housing Director Rainforth has testified that the exemptions don’t work).
Council should create housing law for all
What works is to make the affordable-housing requirement workable for developers without sacrificing the goal of providing affordable housing.
The council has taken the first step by amending the percentage of affordable-housing units required from 30% to 20%.
The developer’s burden can be further reduced by allowing the developer, in lieu of turnkey or finished units, to provide land and offsite infrastructure that supports the percentage of affordable housing required. This will further cut the developer’s cost significantly.
In the case of Koa‘e, the land-and-offsite-infrastructure formula saved the developer about $20 million. In return, the debate about 50- versus 30-year buybacks becomes irrelevant because the county owns the land and the units will be affordable for generations.
The biggest beneficiaries will be our families who would otherwise have to move off-island, the millennials who want to come home, and the lower-income, aging, baby-boomers on fixed incomes. There will be an ever-growing inventory of affordable housing insulated from the market that will provide housing for our families for a long time.
The council wants to approve the present draft before the new council comes onboard.
County Housing Agency Director Adam Roversi and some councilmembers say they will introduce a new bill and “fix” the new law in the next term, but it is not responsible to approve a fundamentally-flawed bill for expediency’s sake.
Let’s get it right the first time. Take the time to draft and approve an affordable-housing law that is fair to developers, practical for the county to implement and, most of all, provides the affordable housing that the people of Kaua‘i need and deserve.
JoAnn Yukimura is a former Kaua‘i mayor and councilmember who served for many years as chair of the council’s Housing Committee, and has supported, initiated or overseen the development of over 1,500 affordable homes on the island.