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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, March 12, 2010

First phase of affordable rental project dedicated

By Will Hoover
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

The first building of the Hale Wai Vista affordable rental housing project in Wai'anae is almost ready for its first residents to move in.

BRUCE ASATO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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WAI'ANAE Construction of thousands of affordable family rental units was going to be the solution to the homeless crisis on O'ahu that began during the boom times of the early and mid-2000s.

Now that times are tough, the recovery slow and an end to hard times nowhere in sight, affordable housing particularly affordable rental units remains a stumbling block of a three-part process designed to curb homelessness in the state.

Yesterday, Gov. Linda Lingle and Mayor Mufi Hannemann, along with state and city housing officials, attended a grand opening dedication ceremony for Hale Wai Vista I the first phase of a 215-unit affordable family residential project. The project has two- and three-bedroom apartments renting for $509 to $964 a month.

Kaniela Kukahiko, 22, along with his girlfriend, Chanel Mora, 23, and their 2-year-old son, Aidan, were the first family to qualify for housing at Hale Wai Vista I, which is next to Wai'anae Mall. They had been living at the Ulu Ke Kukui transitional shelter on St. John's Road.

Kukahiko learned about Hale Wai Vista I through his case worker at the shelter. He said he earns enough from his job at a moving and storage company to afford the $509 monthly rent on the two-bedroom, 600-square-foot apartment the family will move into on April 15.

"We're very lucky," Kukahiko said.

Lingle yesterday acknowledged that the state is still woefully short of affordable family rentals for those who need them. She cited the Hale Wai Vista project as a model that needs to happen on a larger scale to address the problem.

The project is a result of a partnership between the state, the city, the Hawaii Housing Corporation, the federal government and the Wai'anae community, Lingle told the gathering.

Beginning around 2006, the state spent tens of millions of dollars on emergency homeless shelters to house hundreds of homeless tent dwellers camping on Wai'anae and Waikīkī beaches. From there, homeless people entered transitional shelters intended to assist and usher the occupants into affordable rental units.

The governor told the gathering that six years ago "when homeless exploded ... we knew emergency shelter was important, we knew transitional housing was important. But one of my key people who kept us always focused on the need for that next step was Russ Saito."

Saito, state comptroller and homeless solutions coordinator, has said in the past that the lack of affordable rentals has been the bottleneck in the design to curb homelessness in Hawai'i.

As a stopgap measure, the state is trying a number of approaches until enough affordable rentals become available. One measure is to give preference for public housing to those who have worked their way through the two-year transitional shelter system.

In a few cases, Saito said, those who have been through the transitional program and can't find an affordable unit are allowed to remain in the shelter system until something becomes available.

"We try to work with them and keep them within the program," Saito said yesterday. "Because if you just put them out in the street, you start the cycle all over again."

Linda Smith, Lingle's senior policy adviser, is also on the board of directors of the Hawaii Housing Finance and Development Corporation.

She said 5,000 Hale Wai Vista-type units are now in the works.

Those apartments "have actually been financed by HHFDC, on the books, planned, and they are either going through their permitting, zoning, or design process, or they are under construction," Smith said.