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.