HONOLULU (KHON2) — As housing costs soar at a record pace across Oahu, tens of millions of dollars earmarked to help people in need sit in Honolulu County’s special fund accounts. Always Investigating wanted to know, what it is going to take to move this government funding out of the bank and turn it into more affordable housing units as intended?
Always Investigating has been closely covering the state’s homeless crisis, where especially on Oahu shelter space is on the decline. There are some bright spots in emergency and transitional housing. But for those ready to transition to stable housing — or trying to stay out of homelessness in the first place — it’s getting harder to afford anywhere to rent.
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“People want us to work harder, roll up our sleeves and actually solve the problem,” said Honolulu City Council Chairman Tommy Waters. “Ultimately, when we try to help people on the street, we need to find places for them to live.”
The city ended the last fiscal year with nearly $45 million in housing-related special funds. The largest — the Affordable Housing Fund — builds up from 0.5% of tax payer’s property taxes or a pace of about $8 million a year.
“When I came into this position, we had about $40 million in that fund,” said Anton Krucky, who took over as director of the city’s Department of Community Services last fall. So some of those years it hadn’t been spent.”
The city put out solicitations last fiscal year to start moving the money into projects. They’re reviewing responses now and will put out another solicitation in the fall.
“We’re trying to do them where people are most ready to begin construction,” Krucky said. “My take on this is no money sits. We need to make it work. We need to get it going.”
KHON2 what kinds of projects we’ll see springing up once they rev up spending.
“We got large developers with high-rises, we got some rural proposals, and we got urban proposals,” Krucky said. “Some of those are rehabbing those three-story walk-ups that we’re kind of famous for, but some are new construction from ground up.”
Units built with this money are for folks earning 60% or less of the area median income and have to remain affordable units for 60 years. For people who qualify and can’t afford even the lower rent, voucher programs from other county special funds and federal money can kick in.
“When we get our money from HUD, they want us to go after the most chronic homeless people that have been out there for a while, that their issues are great, and we’re trying to help them,” Krucky said, explaining how another of the large housing special funds must be spent. “That’s what Section 8 targets.”
COVID relief money proved to be a huge leg up beyond the usual special funds.
“With that program and CARES act money, we housed over 830 individuals last year and 301 families,” Krucky said. “So that takes a big chunk out of what was on the street and in shelters.’
But COVID relief won’t likely come again, turning the focus back to getting earmarked money off the balance sheet and into tangible housing units. Lawmakers tell me they’re keeping a close eye on the big balances, too.
“I’m going to work with the city administration to try to help them push this along as quick as possible,” Waters said.
“We need to do it really with a lot of effort and earnestness because it is the public’s money,” Krucky said.
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Affordable housing money is just the tip of the iceberg, as special funds tally up to hundreds of millions unspent in other categories at the City and County of Honolulu. Always Investigating will follow up on other high-balance special funds, what it will take to spend it on worthy projects, and what taxpayer advocates say should be done.