Kaua‘i County Council passes housing bill

LIHU‘E — The Kaua‘i County Council, almost 10 months and five drafts later, passed Bill No. 2774 on Wednesday, amending the county’s housing policy in an attempt to better address a staggering housing crisis faced by the county.

First introduced on Jan. 29 by Council Chair Arryl Kaneshiro and Housing and Intergovernmental Relations Committee Chair KipuKai Kuali‘i, the bill passed 5-1, with councilmember Felicia Cowden as the sole nay vote.

Heard often during the process is the fact that the current housing policy had netted zero affordable-housing units in its existence. Known as Ordinance 860, this policy has been in effect since June 2008.

Part of that reason, County Housing Agency Director Adam Roversi said, has to do with “triggers” in the ordinance (certain permits and zoning requirements) that did not activate the policy.

In its passed form, Bill No. 2774 decreases the workforce-housing assessment from 30% to 20%, which means for projects of 10 or more units, 20% will need to be considered “workforce-housing units,” which are priced for people who earn lower than the market rate and above what they need to make to qualify for federal assistance.

The bill exempts multi-family workforce-housing projects in the special planning areas mostly found in Lihu‘e, Koloa and Kalaheo in areas zoned R-10 or higher, at or above the maximum density, which promotes denser, and in some cases, more-walkable communities.

The bill also drops what is considered affordable by eliminating the 140% area median income level (AMI), and maxing it out at 120%.

To put this into context, a for-sale, two-bedroom home at 120% of the county’s median income would sell for $533,600, whereas at 140% that would go for $631,300. Rent wise, a two-bedroom with utilities would go for $2,750 a month at 120% of the AMI. At 140%, that would be $3,208, according to U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development numbers.

Additionally, the bill extends the term of affordability from 20 years to 50 years, which gives the county a sort of dibs on these types of units within 50 years of purchase. This allows the county to repurchase homes and sell them at affordable rates.

The council received at least 72 pieces of written testimony, including one in support, 55 in opposition and 16 classified “other” opinions before Wednesday’s meeting.

“I don’t understand why we have to pass this today,” Cowden said prior to the vote. She said she was “not comfortable” with the policy, and believes it would make developing affordable housing more difficult based on conversations with stakeholders.

Cowden, at an earlier October committee meeting, proposed an amendment removing all town-core exemptions, reducing the 30% affordability requirement to 15% across the board, and a 30-year buy-back period. The amendment was struck down, but had it passed it would have brought the bill back to the public hearing stage.

“I know there’s a lot of good in here, but I am not going to be voting in support of it,” Cowden said. “It seems like it will pass just fine regardless. And I hope that you all are right, and I am wrong.”

Over the past 10 months, the council has continued to tweak the bill with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic in mind.

“The notion that because of COVID-19 we should do nothing doesn’t make any sense,” Roversi said. “We have a housing crisis. It’s only going to get worse with the economic crisis and economic stress in our community generated by COVID-19 financial losses. Because people are financially in trouble, it seems illogical to me we should not do something about affordable housing.”

Former Mayor JoAnn Yukimura testified Wednesday, noting that many developers avoid town cores of Kalaheo, Kilauea, Hanalei and Koloa because of a lack of a sewer system.

“The county has failed to do good land-use planning,” Yukimura said. “It has designated places for growth but failed to provide the infrastructure for it, leaving the private developers to install their own sewage-treatment systems.”

Yukimura recommended that the bill’s “exemptions” statements be changed to “exceptions,” require a 10% housing assessment from Koloa, change the land-in-lieu option to land and offsite infrastructure option, and clarify housing contributions.

Voting in favor of the bill were Kaneshiro, Kuali‘i, Vice Chair Ross Kagawa and councilmembers Mason Chock and Luke Evslin, all noting that this is just the start to affordable housing, not the final answer.

“We have carved out an avenue and a direction for the kind of development that we want to encourage and provide a way for it to serve our needs,” Chock said.

The bill has a 10-year sunset, Kuali‘i explained, and there’s no more important time than now to “give this a shot.”

“We need to give it a try,” Kuali‘i said. “We need to actually do what the bill was intended to do.”

Kaneshiro likened the bill to peeling an onion, with these amendments as one layer.

“I don’t think we can do worse than zero,” Kaneshiro said.

Home tax exemption also passes

The council also passed Bill No. 2803, an ordinance that would change the requirements for a person to qualify for a home real property tax exemption.

Now, to qualify for a home exemption, a person must occupy their home on Kaua‘i for at least 270 days, or about nine months, up from the previous 181 days. Prior to the passing of this bill, Kaua‘i had the fewest home-occupancy qualifications. Maui County and the City & County of Honolulu require 271 days, and Hawai‘i Island requires 181 days to qualify.

The county now also requires a homeowner to file a state tax return with a reported address in the county, have a valid state license or identification card, or be stationed in the county under military orders.

The bill, which was first introduced by Evslin on Aug. 19, passed unanimously.

  1. Laura Lentz October 22, 2020 3:22 am Reply

    Very few families on Kauai can afford two bedroom rent at $2750 a month. This is the low income housing? This is absolutely absurd, this is not a solution to the housing problem, but just another incidence of government employees with steady incomes having no grasp on the full time workers supporting this community and the salaries they are earning. It’s a travesty these projects have not been built over so many years and developers have gotten away with doing nothing. Affordable two bedroom housing should be $1500 to $1800 a month, maximum. This is sadly all about profits, once again.

  2. David October 22, 2020 3:33 am Reply

    Affordable housing is not affordable. I’m a professional who earns a fair wage, but when I look at what value of home I should be able to afford from financial advisement pageant puts Kevin the $350,000 to $400,000. Price range. I understand why there are homeless people it’s unaffordable to rent it purchade. There should be more entry level homes being built. Land on Kaua’i is like a dismond, high value because of low availability.

  3. Keith R Yap October 22, 2020 8:59 am Reply

    Now if we can pass the West Kauai Community Plan, companies such as Gay & Robinson can renovate and replace all of the aging affordable homes it rents in Kaumakani and Pakala. And possibly add to more affordable units. With all the numerous focus group and open community outreach meetings that was done last year, I am amazed that the Council cannot recognize the time and effort already made to outreach to the community by the planning department and community leaders. I feel like all my attendance, contributions and knowledge provided was wasted because a few individuals “forgot” to pay attention to the process. Looks like Gay & Robinson will have to take adding affordable homes off of their planning for the future and allow existing affordable homes to be taken out of inventory not because G&R cannot repair it but because zoning won’t permit it. Sad.

  4. White privilege October 22, 2020 12:46 pm Reply

    Yup….just voted for Felicia only…this bill is total B.S…affordable should be at least 80%
    Max off median..that’s why it’s called affordable…..like I said before…all smoke and mirrors…they just trying to Gentrify kauai sooner than later to maximize the profits for
    Who ever is Greasing there greedy palms.

  5. darel canehiro October 22, 2020 2:29 pm Reply

    People living in major cities are homeless because of gentrification through pure greed.

    People with multiple jobs cannot afford to live in cities because legislators have created grease your palm bills.

    This reminds me of the big box band and how family and friends of a legislator made huge profits and the island suffered from monopolies backed by legislation to keep competition from reducing the costs of goods.

    Kauai is not immune from public corruption and the housing bill is a great example of a few people manipulating for profit greedy landowners, developers and speculators.

    Only a hurricane will save Kauai from this greedy bill.

  6. KauaiFarmMan October 23, 2020 6:57 am Reply

    The reason hosing here is so expensive is simple economics. It’s not greedy developers. Cost of building materials is very high in Hawaii. There is a very small skilled construction worker labor force here. Wages are too high, you can hire a skilled carpenter on the mainland for the cost of an unskilled laborer here. To top off, all that property is so expensive here due to poor governance like this bill. Developers won’t build because of restrictions like these. If more got built there would be more inventory to lower the demand and price. Kauai has simply failed to build fast enough to meet demand. Coupled with high cost factors this crisis will continue until the county gives incentives to developers to build not hinderances. Most problems here add up to poor leadership and the general ignorance of the local population. Build more with less restriction and housing will improve for everyone.

  7. Westside Resident October 23, 2020 7:22 am Reply

    So-called affordable housing creates an entitlement mentality.

  8. Da Shadow October 23, 2020 1:42 pm Reply

    Why isn’t the State and County working with the Robinson Family and their MASSIVE land holdings? even if they made a fraction of their land available, it would allow for so much housing.

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