Faith Action for Community Equity
FACE organized a housing rally at Honolulu Hale in 2009.
Image: courtesy of face

After Hannemann’s departure, Honolulu is doing a 180 on housing issues.

Faith Action for Community Equity /

For years, Oahu housing advocates found former Mayor Mufi Hannemann’s door shut tight to their concerns. “He wouldn’t even meet with us,” said Jun Yang, an organizer with FACE (Faith Action for Community Equity), which has been pressing the city to address homelessness and the need for affordable homes.

But now that Hannemann has abandoned the mayor’s post in pursuit of higher office, FACE is getting a much warmer reception. Indeed, it might be too warm, with the Honolulu City Council and Acting Mayor Kirk Caldwell advancing separate resolutions to bring the city back into the housing arena. While they similar, the Council’s proposal would situate the city housing effort inside the mayor’s office, while Caldwell’s would reorganize the Office of Community Services.

It’s created a slightly sticky situation for FACE, which turned to the Council for help after Hannemann blew off their prayer vigil at Honolulu Hale last fall. With the support of Councilmembers Donovan Dela Cruz and Ann Kobayashi, a resolution was introduced in February to put the question of a city housing office to the voters in the form of a charter amendment.

The measure was headed toward certain passage when the administration changed and Caldwell, who said his passion for housing issues partly prompted his decision to become managing director, was suddenly in a position to implement his own initiatives.

“We need to work with the private sector to see what the city can do to make it easier to build more [city] core housing, because housing is the only way to deal with homelessness,” he told the Weekly. “We will not be adding to the bureaucracy, but seeing how we can make use of the private sector and nonprofits. We need to have better interaction, provide incentives.”

Housing activists were initially skeptical at the turn-around. “Caldwell’s position is 180 degrees from Hannemann’s,” said the Rev. Robert Nakata, a longtime FACE board member and former state representative. “Hannemann flat out opposed us.”

But after meeting with Caldwell and his staff, FACE organizers came away assured of his sincerity. They also agreed to back his plan to expand the duties of an existing city agency to include the added responsibilities and redefined priorities suggested by its new name: the Housing and Community Services Office. The Council’s resolution would put the housing office under the mayor.

“If Kirk Caldwell really, really means this and will move it forward, then we support it,” Yang said.

Nakata said the group also wants written confirmation from Caldwell, who supports selling city-owned housing projects, that he will push to have the projects remain affordable for perpetuity and direct any funds from such sales back into affordable housing.

“We will be insisting upon that, and this is the one item that may change our attitude toward [Caldwell’s] resolution [241],” Nakata said.

Council members, who heard–and deferred — Caldwell’s proposed resolution last week, were a bit taken aback by both the administration’s dramatic policy change and FACE’s shifting alliance. “They think we have sold out somehow and bought into the new Administration,” said the Rev. Alan Mark, president of FACE. “Now what we have to do is re-educate them. The two resolutions are nearly the same, word for word.”

Except one, of course, would be the work of the Council, while the other would be attributed to Caldwell.

“So long as we get a city housing [plan] in place to help the homeless, we’re happy,” Mark said. “We don’t care who gets the credit.”

Political hay isn’t the only issue at stake. FACE has stepped behind Caldwell’s resolution in part because it believes the Community Services office is better suited to administer housing services. But its leadership is also wary of putting the issue on the ballot.

“It’s a bird in the hand,” Mark said of Caldwell’s resolution, which could be implemented immediately. “With some voters there’s a knee-jerk reaction. They see it as another added bureaucracy, another layer of government. We don’t have the resources to run a public education campaign to counter that.”

FACE organizers acknowledge that some voters may be leery of endorsing the city’s re-entry into the housing arena. Following the corruption scandal associated with the construction of Kukui Plaza 12 years ago, Honolulu residents voted overwhelmingly to abolish the housing department, leaving it the only county in Hawaii without one.

Voters also could balk at the expense. Some $124,000 already has been set aside for a couple of positions in the FY 2011 budget for an office of housing attached to the Mayor, according to an email from Council Budget Committee Chairman Nestor Garcia. Caldwell’s plan to reorganize the Community Services Office is estimated to cost about $200,000. The two positions already budgeted by the Council could be redirected to that initiative, Garcia said, and “the balance of the $200,000 could come from a combination of federal and other general operating funds.”

Under either scenario, the city isn’t looking at becoming a developer or landlord.

“My real concern is how we see this office,” Garcia wrote. “I believe all parties want the office to only coordinate and advocate for housing across the entire spectrum — including working with developers to see if they set aside a percentage of housing developments (include transit oriented development) for the affordable category (as opposed to the market category) to housing for the homeless and other special needs (elderly, independent living for handicapped, etc.). We need to also make sure that the affordable housing that is now in the city’s inventory–and in the process of turning the inventory over to the private sector (hopefully, non-profit) remain available for the existing tenants–as well as remain in the affordable housing category. We do not want the office to become a developer. I saw that happen with the state–and the result was mixed. The city should only facilitate the development of housing–not build and operate.”

Caldwell agrees. “When the city manages it, it doesn’t do so well.”

While Caldwell’s resolution seems like a surer bet than a ballot initiative, FACE organizers realize that supporting his plan is also something of a gamble, since the mayor’s seat is up for grabs. “If Kirk Caldwell is not re-elected mayor, the restructuring will already have begun,” Yang said. “If the city starts to move in a different direction, we will push back. No matter what, the housing advocates will have to move forward.”