Affordable-Housing Advocate Lobbies Government to Do More for Low-Income Residents

By Viotti, Vicki | Honolulu Star - Advertiser, June 2, 2017 | Go to article overview

Affordable-Housing Advocate Lobbies Government to Do More for Low-Income Residents


Viotti, Vicki, Honolulu Star - Advertiser


Catherine Graham, one of the leading lights of the Housing Now! Coalition throughout the just-finished legislative session, would describe herself as a passionate advocate for affordable housing -- but not any kind of expert.

"Every time I feel like I have a handle on something, I go, 'Oh, I guess I don't. I don't understand any of this,'" she said with a grin.

Graham, 69, retired after years of working as public relations and volunteer services coordinator for the Institute for Human Services.

She first moved to Hawaii in 1979 from her longtime home in Chicago, where she worked for the Island Holidays travel company. Studies at the University of Hawaii yielded a master's degree in cultural anthropology, followed by more years working in tourism "because that's where the jobs were."

Finally a friend told Graham about the IHS post, and she decided her heart was in the nonprofit sector, taking other posts over the years before returning to the IHS job.

Her son now grown, Graham has found her way through her church to volunteer work with Faith Action for Community Equity (FACE), which advocates for low-income residents. FACE founded the housing coalition as an offshoot and developed a model micro-unit from a shipping container.

The fact that the model hasn't been replicated in bulk by public and private stakeholders is a puzzling aspect of this issue, Graham said.

"I'm not quite sure what the problem is," she added. "They can't quite get it together to do that."

Question: How would you score the Legislature on affordable housing, and why?

Answer: Last year the Legislature mandated the formation of a Special Action Team to figure out how to get 22,500 affordable housing units built in the next 10 years. That was a bold and exciting mandate.

What is needed to do that, however, is money from the state to subsidize this housing. Sen. Wil Espero introduced a bill to float $2 billion in bond funding to make these 22,500 housing units a reality.

The Legislature passed $25 million instead, even though the governor had asked for $50 million in his budget. That leads me to believe that affordable housing was not really on the legislative radar.

The governor requested $15 million to complete appropriations for a mixed-use affordable housing/juvenile detention program center -- the Legislature did not fund this. That means that 184 affordable housing units will not be built because the Legislature does not want to work with the Judiciary.

There was also a bill introduced to increase the conveyance tax on sales and leases of property over $2 million -- 50 percent of the conveyance tax goes to affordable housing. This seemed like a good way to increase state revenue with a one-time tax on luxury condos and other high-end property sales. The money chairs would not even consider this measure.

This session was a lot about politics and not much about the needs of the people of Hawaii. I'd give this session a "D".

Q: Besides increasing the allotment for housing, are there other policy changes that are needed?

A: The development process is a very slow process, in part because of all the approvals and permits needed by different agencies of both the state and the counties.

The Special Action Team is looking at these roadblocks to see which ones can be safely streamlined. Additional staffing at HHFDC, the Hawaii Housing Finance and Development Corp. might also help in speeding up the application review process for funding for affordable housing developments.

Q: How do you answer critics who say government-subsidized housing adds to dependency?

A: Who is dependent? The developers on the subsidies or the residents of the developments?

I am not a developer, or a finance person -- at all. But the developers say they need the government subsidy to complete their "finance stack" to get all their funding in line. …

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