Bold leadership can increase affordable housing, curb poverty

Hawaii is locked in an economic crisis of immense proportions, yet those in positions of leadership do little. Like crickets in the night we hear them chirping, bemoaning the visual blight of the unwashed, pointing fingers at each other in blame, and occasionally trotting out task forces and studies, and perhaps the occasional pilot project they have commissioned.

Far too many people in our community get up every morning and go to work at a job that pays them substandard wages, with minimal to no benefits. Many work all day, then go on to their night job, but still cannot afford even the basics of a sound roof over their head.

The widespread economic disparity existing now in Hawaii could be greatly diminished if doing so was a priority of Hawaii’s government and business elite. But clearly it is not.

The combination of low wages and high housing costs are crippling burdens carried day after day by working people.

If Hawaii’s elite wanted to alleviate poverty in Hawaii they could do so almost immediately by supporting a $15 minimum wage and undertaking a full-frontal assault on affordable housing.

Raising the minimum wage in Hawaii from the existing $9.25 to at least $15 per hour and indexing that increase to the cost of living would be a major step. Instead of fighting tooth and nail against it, if the business establishment supported a phased-in minimum wage increase, the political support would follow.

Hawaii is an island state. The fear of being forced to compete with lower-wage communities is unfounded, as our economy is primarily visitor industry, construction and military based. Restaurant owners need not worry about customers crossing the border to buy a cheaper hamburger.

While the powers-that-be continue to support the building of luxury condominiums, gentlemen-estate farms and one shopping center development after another, they effectively ignore affordable housing and the plight of regular working men and women.

The majority of land in Hawaii, on every island, is owned by a handful of trusts, corporations and LLCs (limited liability companies). Big business controls the land, often the water, and some would argue the government itself.

State and county government control the land use (zoning), the basic infrastructure, and the regulations. The governor or any mayor could take the lead on this and collaborate with business (or not) and the steps are basic:

The state and county have the power to purchase land via eminent domain if necessary by paying fair market value. Government could purchase land within or adjacent to existing urban areas (consolidating smaller urban low-rise parcels if needed), then increase the density which effectively lowers the “per unit cost” and increases the per unit affordability.

To pay for it, the state could eliminate the tax loophole for real estate investment trusts (REITs) tomorrow and generate $30 million to $50 million per year that could be leveraged and redirected toward affordable housing land purchase or infrastructure construction.

County government could utilize tax incremental funding (TIF), which are bonds borrowed with repayment based on the future property tax revenue that results directly from the development.

Government also has the legal authority to restrict sales and rentals to local residents within a defined set of guidelines, effectively shielding the market from speculation and off-shore investors.

Yes, increasing the minimum wage to at least $15 per hour, combined with an aggressive and bold “Apollo project” approach to our affordable housing crisis, could indeed change the world for the vast majority of Hawaii residents. Let’s do it.

Note: First published on October 19, 2017 in the Honolulu StarAdvertiser “Island Voices” section.


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Adding more lanes to relieve traffic congestion = a zero sum game

The best thing we can do to solve our traffic problem is to do nothing.

Seriously, while “doing nothing” is clearly not an option, studies have shown that adding more and more lanes simply adds more and more capacity and encourages more and more cars.

Expanding highway infrastructure on our main thoroughfares is a zero-sum game we will never win.  The principle is called “induced demand.”

This conclusion is one that is obviously counter-intuitive, and politically unpopular.  People reading this column have by now already stopped and many are screaming at the idiocy of the suggestion, even as they swear and condemn the traffic in Kapaa and increasingly on the west-side as well.

However, any basic internet search of “transportation planning #101” will repeatedly lead you to this end.

The Brookings Institute says: “Living with congestion. This is the sole viable option. The only feasible way to accommodate excess demand for roads during peak periods is to have people wait in line.”

Brookings goes on to state: “Experience shows that…, peak-hour congestion cannot be eliminated for long on a congested road by expanding that road’s capacity.”

USA Street Blog says: “Numerous studies have documented the phenomenon known as induced demand in transportation: Basically, if you build highway lanes, more drivers will come.”

This is not to say that we should not build new roads.   Yes, we need new roads but simply adding new lanes to existing roads will not get us out of the constant gridlock.  We must continue to improve side street and back road circulation patterns, offering drivers options that avoid the congested areas.  And yes, most certainly we must improve the repair and maintenance of existing roadways.

Given our small population, the huge cost of building new highways, the limited state budget and the sensitive nature of conservation lands that must be crossed for major interior by-pass roads, these types of projects are non-starters.

But the studies, the research and the facts are clear – adding more lanes will not alleviate the traffic.  What will alleviate the traffic are the choice people make to not drive during certain periods, to use public transportation and to live and work within the same general geographic vicinity.

We should think of traffic as a planning opportunity, rather than a planning nightmare.  This is the time, when Kauai County is reviewing its General Plan intended to guide its growth over the next 20 years when the principle of focusing growth on the redevelopment of existing urban centers should be the focus.  Infill re-development, increased density and the reduction of urban sprawl must be the driving force guiding the plans need to provide increased housing, commercial and industrial development.

While our towns will inevitably grow outward, the focus must be on redevelopment of existing urban areas.  Spot zoning outside of our towns and the sprawl that results must be avoided like the plague.

Though adding more lanes has been proven to not alleviate traffic in the long term, the State Department of Transportation (SDOT) will continue to follow this path in the foreseeable future.

The good news/bad news for Kapaa is that within the coming 24 months the SDOT (at a cost of approximately $25 million dollars) will be adding a fourth lane extending from the existing Wailua bridge, running northward in front of the Coco Palms Hotel until it meets with the current Kapaa by-pass which connects with Olohena Road.

Most predict the fourth lane will greatly alleviate traffic in this particular bottle neck, but that relief will last for no more than 5 years when the “induced demand” then catches up.  Also predictable, is that the path of least resistance for the SDOT is continuing incremental construction of that fourth lane, in both directions so that generations to come will be able to sit in 4 lanes of traffic all the way from Kealia to Hanamaulu, instead of the existing 2 that grandma and grandpa enjoy today.

Yes, it is crazy. And yes, we can do something about it.  Comprehensive multi-modal transportation planning, expanding the Kauai Bus service, focusing the development of new affordable housing projects within or adjacent to existing urban areas and saying NO to increased sprawl must be mandates within the Kauai General Plan.

NOTE: First published on October 18th, 2017 in The Garden Island newspaper weekly column “Hooser – Policy and Politics”

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Affordable Housing – it’s complicated…but not really.

“It’s complicated” is often the response given as to why government is not doing more to deal with the lack of truly affordable housing.

Actually, it’s not. It takes a government willing to think long-term, challenge the large landowners and to act boldly. This entails risk, but it’s really not that complicated.

The majority of developable land on Kauai located adjacent to existing towns and residential areas is owned by a handful of trusts, corporations and LLCs. They control the land, often the water, and in many ways our county government itself. The county government controls the land use (zoning), most of the basic infrastructure, and the laws which are intended to guide the island’s future growth (think Kauai General Plan).

While the county seems content to support the never-ending construction of luxury homes, gentlemen-estate farms and one shopping center development after another, they only nibble around the edges of the affordable housing dilemma. This is not to denigrate the hard work of those in both the county housing department or the various nonprofit groups who are presently struggling as best they can with the limited resources they have.

While the Lima Ola project, though only 75 acres, could have been located closer to job centers and designed more pedestrian-friendly, it is a small step in the right direction, but not enough.

It is not the sweat of the rank-and-file that is lacking, but rather the bold leadership at the top.

To be clear, the current affordable housing crisis could be resolved if just a few big landowners sincerely wanted to make it happen, and/or if county government decided to truly attack this issue with the vigor and boldness it deserves.

Collaboration between the two would be the ideal, but the county must lead. They could lead with carrots and sticks, via tax policy and density entitlements, which would likely result in a small but much needed increase in the affordable inventory.

Or they could lead boldly, taking the big steps that are needed to catch up and alleviate the pain and stress of high prices/rents now being endured by so many. Either the mayor or a majority on the council could take the lead on this, and the steps are basic:

w Identify land located within or adjacent to existing urban areas;

w Purchase that land at existing fair market value (by eminent domain if needed);

w Rezone the land to increase density (which decreases the cost per unit);

w Install infrastructure (water, roads, electricity);

w Build/subdivide in partnership with local developers;

w Sell/rent to local residents (with protections against speculation);

Where would the money come from to do all this?

While there are a variety of funding strategies the county could take, one approach that would not impact any resident, nor detract from any existing county service, would be the utilization of Tax Incremental Funding (TIF).

TIF funding are bonds borrowed with repayment based on the future property tax revenue that results directly from the development. Simply stated, the undeveloped raw land presently generates minimal tax revenue, but when developed, that same land generates a far greater amount. This difference could be used to repay the bonds that funded the project.

The county has authority over land use, rezoning and density.

The county also has the power to purchase land via eminent domain by paying fair market value. This means government could purchase land within or adjacent to existing towns and urban centers (Lihue, for example), then increase the density, effectively lowering the “per unit cost,” thus increasing affordability.

Ideally, the developments would include both high density apartments and single-family homes that service kupuna, singles and families, located in areas adjacent to job centers, schools and towns, thus minimizing traffic impacts.

The county also has the legal ability to restrict sales and rentals to local residents within a defined set of guidelines. In other words, homes can be developed in a manner that shields them from speculation and off-shore investors.

Affordable housing should not be an afterthought, tagged on as a minimum requirement to high-end developments, and should be defined as housing the average local resident working a full-time job can afford.

Those in positions of leadership — the mayor and the County Council, with or without the collaboration and cooperation of the major landowners — could do this if they truly wanted to.

NOTE: First published in The Garden Island newspaper in the weekly column “Hooser – Policy and Politics” on October 11, 2017

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Why Corporations Love The Centrist

The obligation to meet opposing viewpoints “halfway” and “listen to the other side” are core arguments of those whose primary interest is preservation of the status quo.  On issues pertaining to the advancement of justice, those advocating for a position in the “middle” serve only to perpetuate the injustice.

Many of us believe, for example, that people working a full-time job deserve to earn a living wage.   The fact that we have people who get up every morning and work 8 hours or more 5 days a week, and yet their pay is not sufficient to rent a home is unacceptable. This is essentially involuntary servitude, and there is no legitimate “other side.”

In the words of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt when he first enacted the federal minimum wage, “No business which depends for existence on paying less than living wages to its workers has any right to continue in this country… By living wages, I mean more than a bare subsistence level- I mean the wages of a decent living.” (1933 Statement on National Industrial Recovery Act.)

Progressive change in support of economic, environmental and social justice has been stymied again and again by well-intended but misguided advocates within our community, who for whatever reason feel compelled to meet the corporations halfway.

While a great many in our community struggle daily working two or three jobs and still cannot afford a decent life, these enablers of the status quo will urge caution in raising the minimum wage, condemn the tactics and message of the progressives, bemoan the lack of fairness on behalf of the corporations and seek the role of what they believe is the “reasonable person in the middle.”

Meanwhile those at the top of the economic food chain are laughing all the way to the bank.

This applies to all attempts at increasing corporate regulation, whether on behalf of workers or the environment.  The refrain is inevitably about the unreasonableness of the proposal, followed by the claim that “the sky is falling” and business will flee, summed up tidily at the end with “Can’t we all just get along?”

Corporations are not people.  They have no conscience and no soul. Corporations are designed for the purpose of increasing the profits of their shareholders, while avoiding personal liability and accountability.

The corporate use of the “reasonable person’s argument” in order to block or slow regulation which may impact profits is standard operating procedure in politics and policy, and far too many of our friends fall for it.

Given that most people wish to avoid controversy and recoil from contention, it is easy for those in power to promote the need for “reasonableness and compromise” among those in the community whose natural inclination is to seek that mythical “win-win” of the centrist’s position.

In the policy arena, this conversation translates to the introduction of a legislative proposal (Bill) already compromised at the very start of the process (in an attempt to meet the unattainable standard of being fair to industry), that eventually and predictably morphs into a study or a task force.  Two years later, or whenever the study is finally completed, the results will be fuzzy, inconclusive, and contested.

Meanwhile, the election cycle rolls through where those same corporate interests will reward their friends and attempt to punish those audacious enough to challenge their game.

Years later, when the bill finally passes and the policy change finally made, it is too often reduced to a watered-down shell of its original version. Industry then hails it as an example of reasonable incremental change while the politicians also proclaim a victory, happy with the crumbs they hope will justify their tenure in office. Meanwhile the poor are getting even poorer, and the planet remains on a path of decline and debasement.

Of course, it doesn’t have to be this way.  If citizens decided to elect representatives willing to stand up to the entrenched power of land and money, things could indeed be different. If citizens engaged the system further by being more aware of the issues, submitting testimony or occasionally even attending a public hearing, then we could perhaps reap the benefits of a true citizen-driven democracy.

We could make great strides to reverse the unconscionable economic disparity and environmental degradation that now exists.  But first, we must make that prerequisite commitment to be active and part of the solution; and we must cast from our psyche that ridiculous, naive and dangerous assumption that corporations must be treated fairly as if they are people, because most assuredly they are not.

NOTE: First published in The Garden Island Newspaper on September 4th “Hooser – Policy & Politics”

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Time To Get Serious About: Carrying Capacity, Affordable Housing & Water  

On October 4th at the Kauai Convention Hall starting at 8:30am, Kauai residents will be testifying on what is potentially the most important agenda item the County Council will be dealing with in the coming decade.  I am hopeful that residents who feel strongly about changing the direction our island is currently heading in, will show up.

The Council currently has before it a proposed ordinance with the potential to dramatically impact the future direction of Kauai County.  We are at a turning point.  We can choose to preserve the status quo, or we can choose to do things differently.

The General Plan can be a “feel good” document that sits on a shelf ignored and forgotten, or it can be a strong mandate to developers and government agencies that ensures ALL county decisions strictly adhere to the General Plan.

While some on the Council and within the County administration will attempt to frame the General Plan as “just a policy document” and “not regulatory in nature”, what they will fail to state is that if does not have to be that way.

According to the Kauai County Charter:  “The council shall adopt and may…modify a general plan setting forth…policies to govern the future physical development of the County.  Such a plan may cover the entire county and all of its functions and services…” The Charter further states: “The general plan shall serve as a guide to all future council action concerning land use and development regulations…”

Further evidence that the General Plan is intended to be a strong and meaningful document is the Charter requirement that it be adopted via Ordinance which carries the weight of law.

Clearly, the Council has the authority to modify and pass a General Plan that covers policies to “govern all future physical development” and may cover “all functions and services.”  The strength or weakness of those policies depend on the Kauai County Council.  They have the legal authority to pass wishy washy business-as-usual policies, or they can pass strong policies that require or prohibit activities, and/or make certain development actions contingent upon various circumstances.

For example, the Council could amend and approve a General Plan that establishes the island’s “carrying capacity” based on existing infrastructure, availability of affordable housing for residents and impacts on the natural environment; and contain provisions designed to prevent future growth from exceeding those limits.  This can be done while honoring private property rights and current land use “entitlements”.  Limiting growth based on infrastructure capacity is not a novel concept and should be at the very core of our General Plan.

Any plan the Council passes must also ensure that affordable housing built primarily for local residents in existing urban areas must occur before any more high-end luxury homes or resort areas are developed. Multi-modal traffic and transportation plans that reduce congestion and greenhousegas emissions, the protection of the natural environment, mauka and makai access for local residents to public resources (ocean, coastline, streams and mountains), and protection of traditional cultural practices and gathering rights – all must be included with clear and strong mandates to the County agencies responsible for permitting and implementation.

The General Plan must also contain provisions designed to ensure that the impact of new development shall not violate the public trust doctrine regarding the protection of water, landand other natural resources; and shall adhere to the tenants of the “Kauai Springs” court decision. Local food production and sustainable agriculture as defined by the USDA must also be established as a County priority, and industrial agriculture must be appropriately regulated.

At the end of the day, the outcome of the General Plan and the future path of our island rests in the hands of the Kauai County Council.  But, actually, the outcome rests in your hands.  Show up, testify and be part of the process, or abdicate that vital responsibility and live with the results.

Note: First published in the The Garden Island newspaper on September 27, 2017 in the weekly column “Hooser – Policy & Politics”

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Purple Mohawks Need Not Apply

What makes someone a good candidate for public office? I hear this question a lot, and the answer is: It’s complicated.

Most voters initially look at the candidate’s character and “world view.” Is the candidate someone of integrity who, if elected, will not lie, cheat or steal? And, do they generally support my “world view” (values, ideology etc.)?

If the answer to the first two questions are yes, then it is on to question #3: Are they electable?

My personal belief is that everyone is electable IF … if they work hard enough, if they raise enough money, if they get others to help them, etc., etc.

But the reality of winning a campaign is that it is hard. Convincing over half the voters in your district to place an “X” next to your name on a ballot is hard, and it is personal.

One very important factor is length of residence and degree of community involvement in their district. Someone who has grown up in the district has an inherent advantage over someone who has only lived there a short time. Those who “parachute in” (move into a district simply to run for public office) are often perceived negatively by long-term residents who will push back against the newcomer. Some districts are more transient than others, and thus potentially more forgiving and supportive of a bright newcomer who shows up and wants to represent them. But areas with more stable populations will immediately ask the defining question, “What high school did you go to?”

A history of community involvement in the district and a history of prior leadership positions are also good indicators of electability. Prior involvement in school government, the local neighborhood association, canoe clubs or other civic organizations are good and positive indicators.

Has the candidate been generally successful in life up until now? Do they have a career? Have they started and run a business? Do they have a college degree? None of this is required, but they all indicate whether the person is a doer or simply a talker.

To sum up the basics: Good candidates have roots in the community, have held positions of leadership in the past, and have reputations as doers.

Beyond the basics, a good candidate must be able to relate to people from all walks of life. Hawaii’s diverse population means that no single demographic is sufficient to win an election. Candidates must be able to traverse ethnic, gender and socio-economic lines, and genuinely connect with people throughout their district. Good candidates must understand that it is not about their own priority issues, it’s about the issues that are important to the people in their community.

You cannot be a single-issue candidate, and you cannot (both literally and figuratively) have a purple mohawk. Even if all of your friends have purple mohawks, there are not enough of them to win.

If you have some deep dark secret you are afraid will come out, I have good news and bad news for you. The bad news is yes, it will come out (and the sooner the better).

The good news is, for local and state elections, it doesn’t really matter. I would not worry too much about run-of-the-mill youthful indiscretions or other bad choices you may have made 10 or more years ago, and even felony convictions can be overcome assuming the candidate has served their time and learned from their mistakes.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, a candidate who wants to win must be able to convince others, in a very short amount of time, that they are “running for the right reasons” and that they are worthy of the voter’s trust and support. The fundamental question of “Why are you running?” will be asked again and again, and the candidate must be able to genuinely connect to the voter when answering.

We need more good candidates to run, and 2018 will be a watershed year at all levels.

Note: First published in the Kauai The Garden Island Newspaper on September 20, 2017

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Rail, Faux Democracy and Leadership

The debate and actions over Rail has exposed to its ugly core the current status of political leadership in Hawaii.

In short, there is none.

Yes, the leadership in the Senate and House came together with a funding solution for rail and I suppose in a twisted sort of way they should be commended for that.  But that solution came only after they were forced to act by overwhelming fiscal and political circumstances that left them no options.

This is not leadership.  Leadership, by definition, is proactive, not reactive.

Watch the hearings and you will see there is no vision, no high level of purpose, and certainly no bringing together the people of Hawaii in pursuit of the common good.

No.  Watch the hearings and you will see the bludgeoning of testifiers, members of the public and others, in pursuit of defending actions that were indefensible.

It is surrealistic, a bizarre theater of the absurd where everyone knows the deal has already been cut and nothing will change regardless what the public says at the microphone.  The legislators know this, the public knows this, and even the media understands and reports that the deal has been made way before the hearing has even been called or the formal vote taken.  Yet, everyone still plays their defined role, acting as if the democratic process is truly at work and justice is being served.

All in pursuit of building a train.  This is what I find indefensible.

Where is the special session to deal with affordable housing and the homeless?  Where is the outrage and commitment from our political and government leadership on issues that have tangible impacts on working people on ALL ISLANDS?

The legislature and the governor who cannot escape his responsibility on this either, are willing to spend billions on a poorly conceived and ill managed train system, while thousands of Hawaii residents can’t even afford a decent roof over their head.

Where is the special session for these folks?  Why is the legislature unwilling to raise taxes on tourists to pay for affordable housing?  Our government just committed to spending $2.4 billion more on rail.  This is enough to fully fund the construction of 10,000 new affordable homes/apartments, which would actually generate income, and, if located in existing urban areas, would do far more to alleviate traffic and help working people in Hawaii than this train will ever do.

As Civil Beat reported earlier, 4 smart and powerful guys (and one powerful woman) went into a room, discussed various options, met with the various powerful special interest groups about those options and then came out of the room announcing their solution.  They then browbeat down any resistance among individual legislators who might have wanted to “vote their conscience” (and against their proposal), rearranged any troublesome committee membership and referrals that might have got in the way of the democratic process, and last but not least held a series of faux public meetings prior to announcing their coup…err solution.

If we assume for a second that this is how government works (and I don’t believe it has to be this way), my question is why can’t the legislature do this for affordable housing?  Why can’t they find the time and make a commitment to increase the minimum wage to a true living wage?

That would be leadership. Elected leaders coming together with a common vision and proposing solutions for the problems facing real people, who are struggling every day just to survive.

In the faith community it is said that a budget is a moral document.  How the publics money is spent reflects the morality and character of a government and its leaders.  Spending even more billions on bricks and mortar in support of a train, while families across Hawaii live in poverty alongside busy roadways, with only blue tarps and wooden pallets for shelter is a travesty.

In 2018, many will be watching, and yes more than a few will be praying, that new leadership steps forward, and we can all put this sordid chapter behind us.

First published in Civil Beat on September 22, 2017

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