Ongoing public investment for affordable housing needed to keep Maui residents on Maui
By Tasha Kama
Decades ago, when “Dream City” in Kahului was being built, homes were priced within reach for Maui’s working families. However, today’s costs of materials, labor and demand have created a market that’s unattainable.
As chair of the council’s Housing & Land Use Committee, I am meeting with developers, agencies, and community members who are working hard to tackle the challenge of providing affordable housing for residents. Time is of the essence, and I hear of more families and individuals who have made the difficult decision to relocate to the mainland due to Maui’s high cost and lack of housing.
So, what is the Maui County Council doing about this complex and hotly debated housing crisis? Here are some policies on the table:
Affordable housing: Plan it and fund it
In a previous term, councilmembers funded research for an Affordable Housing Plan, which outlines a comprehensive package of processes and legislative actions that could improve the delivery of affordable housing. One strategy proposed was investing the county’s property tax revenue earmarked for the Affordable Housing Fund and using the proceeds to pay for infrastructure and direct subsidies to homebuyers and renters.
Another proposal we will be evaluating involves creating a fund for mortgage assistance, so after someone on a fixed income qualifies for a home, they can get ongoing help paying for their home. Research shows that it is important to subsidize both the construction of homes and the mortgage payments for homebuyers.
For rental units, the same holds true: we must be prepared to support both builders and renters to make sure the unit stays affordable.
If we build it, they will come: Investing in infrastructure
Late in the last term, the county made a substantial investment in the Pulelehua development in West Maui. Eighteen million dollars from the affordable housing fund was committed to achieve 60 units of affordable for-sale housing—approximately $300,000 investment per unit.
During consideration of the 2024 Fiscal Year budget, the council heard from many developers seeking assistance from the affordable housing fund. One developer stated that to meet the price guidelines proposed in Bill 107 (2022), they would need a $3 million subsidy from the affordable housing fund.
If this sounds like a lot of money to you, I agree. However, from what I hear from a number of developers, this is our new reality.
If we want housing units at the cost levels established in Bill 107 (2022), we will need to commit millions of taxpayer dollars to help bring down the costs to build housing units. Some examples include the county helping to fund infrastructure like roads, sewer, water and other utilities.
All things considered, I see the need to establish policies to guide the levels of funding the county provides to subsidize housing projects.
Not our wheelhouse: The county as developer
While some have suggested that the county should develop housing units itself, the last county-led affordable housing development at Kulamalu proved this tactic doesn’t necessarily save money. This multifamily rental project resulted in an investment of approximately $323,000 per unit, not including staff time developing and managing the construction of that project. With the addition of these estimated expenses the cost per unit would be substantially higher.
Balancing housing, agriculture and open space
With space on our islands at a premium, we need to carefully balance the need for housing and open space with our need for food self-sufficiency through crops and livestock. Ironically, both housing and agriculture depend on the same basic needs: flat, stable soil and available water.
To meet both goals, we must consider increasing housing density and build up, not out.
No such thing as “perfect”
It will take compromise on everyone’s part to bring future affordable housing projects into reality. The county has worked for years and spent thousands of dollars to solicit community input via the community plans and the Maui Island Plan, which are designed to guide future growth including areas for residential development.
However, projects are often met with unbridled opposition. The idea of “not in my backyard” will always be an issue, but if we don’t quickly build more housing units that locals can afford, more people will become former residents.
*Tasha Kama is the chair of the Housing and Land Use Committee. She holds the County Council seat for the Kahului residency area. “Council’s 3 Minutes” is a column to explain the latest news on county legislative and community matters. Go to mauicounty.us for more information.