HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Back in 2012, rail was the issue that helped get Kirk Caldwell elected as Honolulu's mayor.
Voters chose the staunch rail advocate over his opponent, former Gov. Ben Cayetano, a vocal critic of the rail project.
This election year, it seems rail could once again play a pivotal role in who voters decide should head up Honolulu Hale over the next four years. But as the rail project hits stumble after stumble, it's not quite clear that Caldwell will come out on top.
Caldwell's two main challengers in the primary election Aug. 13 – former Mayor Peter Carlisle and former Congressman Charles Djou – offer differing viewpoints on how to tackle the project.
But Caldwell, a former state representative and lawyer, is quick to point out that rail certainly isn't the only pressing issue facing Oahu.
Back in May, after Carlisle announced he was running to get his old job back, Caldwell campaign Chairman Lex Smith said the mayor has "tackled all the challenges presented to him" during his four years in office.
"That's what this campaign will be about," he said.
In advance of the primaries, Hawaii News Now wanted to know how all three leading candidates stood on major issues facing Oahu, from (yes) rail to homelessness to the rising cost of living. To see how Carlisle responded to our five questions, click here. Read Djou's responses here.
Here's how Caldwell responded:
When I began serving as mayor, I focused my administration on five priorities: repaving our roads, building rail, improving our parks and public facilities, restoring and enhancing bus service, and improving sewer infrastructure (through the global consent decree). As progress was made, we adjusted our focus and resources. We have also now confronted the many issues surrounding homelessness, and the need for affordable housing.
If re-elected, these core priorities will remain the same. But I believe the most pressing are affordable housing, homeless issues and the completion of rail.
The recent homelessness count shows that the increase in homelessness on Oahu is slowing down as the city and state make progress in placing homeless in permanent housing. However, we remain in "crisis mode" as public resources are challenged by the spiraling cost increases to manage this problem.
The bottom line is that everyone in the community needs to work together to solve this problem – government alone cannot do so. While my administration has taken a leadership role in this effort and will continue to do so, every segment of our community needs to also step up to the plate. That will be my focus – expanding the existing partnerships with state, federal and non-profit agencies to other community organizations and the private sector.
The following are the specific actions planned for the next term:
- Continue to place at least 100 chronic homeless households per year into permanent supportive housing under our Housing First program. The cost to operate the City’s Housing First program compounds with every new 100 placements because it must support the prior years’ placements until the person achieves stability and financial need is reduced. This can be expanded as resources for this program become available.
- Continue to operate the homeless navigational center on Sand Island;
- Continue to develop housing projects for the homeless in Chinatown, Makiki, Waianae, Iwilei and several other projects are in the works.
- Continue with the nationwide Mayor’s Challenge to place 1,000 homeless veterans in permanent housing. We’ve placed 747 to date.
- Develop more hygiene centers and day care facilities.
- Explore with the City Council, sponsoring temporary tent shelters, including State and City lands that can be converted into temporary shelters, with access to utilities and transportation, and provided that these shelters are a safe place for both its residents and the surrounding neighborhood.
- Reassess income and tenant mix in the City’s housing portfolio to determine best use of these options.
- Continue to enforce sit/lie ordinances to ensure public walkways remain clear for all pedestrian traffic.
In the summer 2015, my administration introduced an affordable housing strategy plan for discussion and public input. We proposed a number of strategies to increase the affordable housing inventory and set a city goal of adding 4,000 units over five years through the various strategies. Given the robust construction boom, and with private developers cancelling, postponing or scaling back projects, this goal will be a challenge to meet.
If I am re-elected, I plan to implement the affordable housing strategies I introduced in the summer 2015. Among those strategies:
- Update city policies and regulations to promote housing production. The accessory dwelling unit (ADU) is an example of how a change in regulation promotes ohana units for affordable rentals. My administration introduced a permit fee waiver ordinance, just passed by the City Council to further stimulate homeowners to build ohana units. This is expected to significantly increase the number of permits to build ohana units. The change in regulation to allow the ADU creates the potential for immediate and low cost expansion of the affordable rental housing inventory by thousands of units with very minimal government investment.
- Increase workforce housing through a set aside requirement that has the right mix of financial (fee waivers, tax credits, etc.) and development (zoning, increased density, code waivers, etc.) incentives and funding for private developers to build workforce housing for the greatest need, households with less than 80% average median income (AMI). We are completing the analysis on the set aside requirement and will introduce it soon for public comment.
- Invest in our neighborhoods through a financial toolkit. Among the tools under review are: reduce fees to lower cost of housing production, adjust property tax exemptions for rental properties, establish infrastructure finance districts, TOD affordable housing fund, or other similar programs.
- Stimulate developer interest to invest in affordable housing and neighborhoods around transit stations through our TOD catalytic projects in Chinatown, Waipahu, Kapalama, Pearlridge, as well as revitalizing Ala Moana Beach Park and the Blaisdell Center.
- Increase low income and homeless housing options; ongoing projects are listed above under the “homelessness” section.
- Partner with state and federal agencies to facilitate their affordable housing projects.
Our residents are concerned about the rising costs of building rail and that their tax burden for those costs will be even greater than it presently exists. This is why I have taken the extremely difficult step of asking the HART board to use current resources to build rail completely to Middle Street, as a response to the Federal Transit Administration's request for an action plan by mid-August.
But I don't intend to stop rail at Middle Street. That is why I asked the FTA to give us until next year to come up with a plan to secure supplemental funding in order to build the remaining 4.3-mile and 8 stations rail line to Ala Moana. I am confident that by the time we need to fund the remaining 4.3-mile rail line, we will have the funds necessary to do so, and I am committed to finding such funding by working with all stakeholders.
At the same time, I intend to improve the governance of the HART administration, strengthen the powers of the HART board through changes in the City Charter, impose greater oversight of financial operations, cost containment and risk control, and improve transparency.
The high cost of living on Oahu is primarily due to the limited land area that drives up the cost of housing, food and commercial services and operations, the price of imported oil that affects gas prices and electricity bills, and transportation costs that are built into costs of food, commodities, and even recreation.
The most direct way that the city can help middle class families make ends meet is to keep the costs of providing city services low in order to maintain the lowest property tax rates among large cities. My administration has implemented a policy of strong fiscal management, low growth in government spending using unrestricted funds, and kept sufficient reserves to protect the City's AA+ bond rating that permits bond financing for capital projects at the lowest rates.
As a result of this prudent fiscal policy, property tax rates in Honolulu on residential owner occupied homes remains the lowest among the large cities of America, according to the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. The study describes Honolulu's ranking as the "lowest property tax rates" because of "high home values, low local gov't spending." While a homeowner may still feel the bite of the property tax bill, this is due primarily to the high value of their property rather than the tax rate imposed.
And the city can do more things – big and small – to help out middle class families, such as:
- Through the housing strategies listed above, stimulate private development into increasing the inventory of workforce housing, thereby reducing the pent up demand that has been responsible for driving up housing prices and rents. High housing costs are the single most-stated reason that middle class families are forced to take multiple jobs and which affects their quality of life. Increasing the stock of affordable housing will go a long way to help middle class families make ends meet.
- Working with the State and the agricultural industry to fully utilize agricultural lands by small farmers in order to produce cheaper local products.
- Paving the bad roads and then maintaining the roads – and we’ve paved over 1,100 lane miles – thereby reducing costs of wear and tear on vehicles and gas.
- Building the rail system and fully integrating it with bus services and other multi-modal options so that our residents have choices for transportation, rather than being reliant on cars. The cost of owning and maintaining a vehicle can easily break the budget. That is why a rail/bus/multi-modal transportation system, primarily in the dense urban core, can improve the quality of life and make living in Honolulu affordable for middle class families.
- Burn trash at H-Power that is converted into renewable energy, reducing the need for imported oil. Hopefully, as the State moves closer to renewable sources of energy, electricity bills will go down.
- Sponsor free community events, such as the Honolulu City Lights and Kapolei City Lights; as well as providing recreational activities at our parks and public facilities without charge for all to enjoy.