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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, January 25, 2007

State must do more on homeless problem

By Sen. Gary Hooser

Creating additional affordable housing and ending homelessness are among the most important issues facing Hawai'i today. Too many residents are forced to live on the streets of our urban centers or in tent cities along our coastlines. Countless others are among the "hidden homeless" who live with friends and relatives because they can't afford a place of their own. In a civilized society, this is intolerable.

The Honolulu Advertiser should be commended for shining a bright light on the failure of state government to properly manage this issue. As a co-chair of the Senate Task Force on Affordable Housing, I have seen the results of the state's mismanagement of our public housing resources. The lack of leadership in this vital area of our community remains amply apparent, from the hundreds of units sitting empty for years to the bungled reconstruction projects perpetually over-budget and incomplete.

Through various legislative initiatives, the state Senate has worked to streamline the financing and development processes for affordable housing, and we have dramatically increased funding in many areas, including the important Rental Housing Trust Fund.

Despite our best efforts, the Legislature continues to be frustrated by the inability of the state administration to properly administer our public housing programs.

In April 2004 the Housing and Community Development Corporation of Hawai'i management was so poor that contractors building the Kalihi Valley Housing project abandoned the job for eight months when the administration did not pay them the hundreds of thousands of dollars they were owed.

We're not alone in judging the HCDCH incompetent. For a time it was placed on the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's "troubled agency" list, putting it in danger of losing millions of federal dollars every year— even risking a federal takeover.

As one step to remedy the dysfunctional HCDCH, the Legislature in 2006 split the agency in two. Despite the HCDCH's miserable management track record, the governor sought last May to appoint the former chair of the HCDCH to the board of one of the new agencies, an appointment the Senate refused to confirm. The new agencies, particularly the Hawai'i Public Housing Authority, continue to struggle under the same ineffective leadership. The HPHA reported that 100 of the 400 positions needed to run its operations are vacant, as are 70 percent of its finance and budgeting positions. The former HCDCH executive director quit in August 2006 after less than three years on the job and, five months later, the HPHA still lacks a full-time executive director.

Over the past decade, the Legislature has appropriated hundreds of millions of dollars for affordable housing, but that money has too often sat unused — or worse, was wasted to cover cost overruns on poorly planned and mismanaged construction projects.

Historically, during tough economic times, the Legislature moved a portion of those unused funds into the general fund to finance other important priorities such as education and healthcare. To my knowledge, the Legislature has never failed to replace housing development funds when presented with a coherent plan demonstrating realistic, "here and now" affordable housing projects in need of funding.

In this time of intense need for new affordable housing in our state, the Dwelling Unit Revolving Fund contains approximately $59 million in uncommitted funds and the Rental Housing Trust Fund contains almost $20 million in uncommitted funds. These are funds available today for affordable housing projects but remain unused, apparently awaiting qualified project proposals.

The Senate is considering a number of bills designed to increase the inventory of affordable rental and for sale units. Senate Democrats are exploring legislation to increase the rental subsidy, fund unit repairs and maintenance, provide tax incentives to help keep housing affordable and add incentives for developers and lenders to enable residents to purchase their first homes. We also want to partner with nonprofits with a proven ability to build and manage affordable housing-groups with a credibility the current state housing administration lacks.

The Senate, working with the House, stands ready to provide the resources and tools needed. But the administration must step up to the plate and prove it is up to the job. While there are many good people working in support of public housing, leadership and competence at the top is clearly lacking.

It is long past the point where the governor's office needs to reach into the community and recruit a strong team of competent and motivated individuals capable of making these vital public housing agencies become efficient and productive.

The people of Hawai'i deserve better. They deserve a full-time "A Team" who will exert the leadership and commitment necessary to manage these agencies properly and move forward to solve the crisis at hand.

State Sen. Gary L. Hooser, D-7th District (Kaua'i, Ni'ihau), is Senate majority leader. He wrote this commentary for The Advertiser.