Boat dwellers at two Hawaii harbors face 330% rent hike
• Photo gallery: Live-aboard boat owners may pay more
By Eloise Aguiar
Advertiser Staff Writer
ALA WAI — Boaters living on their vessels at Ala Wai and Ke'ehi small boat harbors are facing a more than 330 percent increase in rent, forcing many of them to rethink their living options.
The hike would follow a mooring fee increase of 30 to 60 percent that was initiated at the beginning of the month to cover the operating costs of small boat harbors.
Boaters say they are being told the boost in the live-aboard fee is a way for the state to raise more money for harbor operations, but they believe the state is overlooking broader boater resources statewide at the expense of 15 percent of the people who rent space at these two facilities.
The rate increase proposal is making its way through the state Legislature and will affect dozens of families, retirees on fixed incomes and struggling workers, said Dr. Steve Holmes, who lives on his boat at Ala Wai.
"There are a certain amount of people down here that probably could afford the rate increase," Holmes said. "But the majority of the people down here cannot and will not. They're being displaced. They will be homeless."
House Bill 2582 and House Bill 2741 would set the live-aboard fee at three times the rate of the mooring fee. This is on top of a recent mooring fee hike that went from $5.68 a foot for vessels this year and will rise incrementally to $9.14 a foot in 2014.
The state Department of Land and Natural Resources said the hike is necessary under a law that says mooring fees must cover harbor operating and maintenance costs.
"The moorage fee increase basically will bring the harbors to the break-even point," said Ed Underwood, administrator for the DLNR Division of Boating and Ocean Recreation. "None of the harbors in the state meet the basic operating cost."
Bill Mossman, who is not a boat owner, said during testimony for the bills that he couldn't afford a 330 percent housing increase.
"Why is this small subset of small boat harbor users being targeted with exorbitant fee increases while the fee rates of thousands of other users of the ... harbors, ramps and other boating facilities and property remain unchanged?" said Mossman, with Hawaii Boaters Political Action Association.
Ala Wai has about 700 slips, of which about 139 are vacant and 129 have liveaboards, the boaters said.
Live-aboard boat owner Bruce Lenkeit estimated that the empty stalls alone could bring in an additional $400,000 a year and at the present rate, if they allowed those to also be live-aboard slips, the income would double.
Lenkeit, a retiree, said his rent was $569 in December and will rise to $1399 this year and top out at $2,010 in 2014.
"I can't afford $2,000 a month to live on my boat," he said. "Right now I have an offer in on a condo and my boat's for sale."
The boaters said they were not opposed to the state trying to get more money for harbor operations, they just want it to be fair across the board.
The state could also raise fees for cruise ship passengers that use Lahaina and Kailua-Kona harbors, Mossman said, adding that passengers there are charged $1.70 each compared with Alaska, which charges $40 a passenger.
While moored vessels saw a 30 percent to 60 percent increase in slip fees, commercial passenger vessels saw none, Mossman said.
Some 12,000 recreational and commercial trailer boats weren't hit with rate increases either, he said. Land and wharf lease rents also weren't increased, he said.
The state disputes that.
Federal law prevents the state from charging cruise ships any more than it costs to accommodate them and commercial vessel moorage rates did rise along with all the others, Underwood said. However commercial vessels pay two times the mooring fee or 3 percent of their gross, whichever is higher. The mooring fee rose for everyone but the percentage of gross did not, Underwood said.
Land and wharf leases also rose, but trailer and loading ramp fees did not, although the state is considering it, he said.
The bills have been assigned to conference committee, where members of the Senate and House will attempt to craft a bill that suits both sides. The House bills sought to add commercial operations at Ke'ehi and Ala Wai and set the liveaboard fee at two times the moorage fee. The Senate dropped commercial operations and set the live-aboard fee to three times the mooring fee, plus the mooring fee.
Sen. Clayton Hee, D-23rd (Kāne'ohe, Kahuku), who will chair the conference committee, said he's concerned about the boating division's handling of its budget and has called for an audit.
"People at the Ala Wai assert that their contribution in payment and fees levied exceeds the cost to maintain the Ala Wai and their assertion is that DLNR has taken those fees and used them in other areas," Hee said. "The audit will help clarify exactly where the fees are going and whether the transfer of fees is consistent with the laws."
Underwood said the department removed the income obtained by land lease rent, such as from the Ilikai, from the harbor's budget and applied the income rent to ocean recreation, the other half of boating's responsibilities.
"That's revenue generated off of public land so that should go to the public in general," he said.
Since 2005, the state has made more than $70 million in improvements at harbors statewide, Underwood said.
The DLNR supported the original bill and Underwood said he would prefer to have some commercial operations at both harbors, which he thinks would be a good source of income.
Boaters say a 330 percent increase will drive liveaboards out of the harbor and that will remove the first line of defense for security. They predict that people will move out, so instead of making more money, the state will lose precious funding.
"It's the same thing with the parking," Lenkeit said. "They raised it from 25 cents an hour to $1. At 25 cents an hour the lots were full. Now you look around and there's no cars."