“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