Archive for October 2011

The future of affordable housing

October 25, 2011

The deadline for submitting your comments about the Oahu General Plan is November 30, 2011, and I hope that you’ve taken a moment to think about Oahu’s future. Affordable housing is just one of the eleven key planning issues covered by the Plan.

The Affordable Housing Trend Report starts with the assumption that “affordable housing is a pressing need for the county.” It highlights several issues affecting affordable housing: the aging population, transit-oriented development, gentrification, densification, the conversion of affordable housing to market-rate housing, and green building.

In a statement of the obvious, the report reveals, “While sometimes linked to mental illness, drug use, and outside factors, the availability of affordable housing can prevent homelessness” (page 13).

But the most surprising thing about the report isn’t the trends and key issues; it’s a chart on page 12 that illustrates “The Flow of Subsidies from Public Agencies to Private Entities.” This Institutional Structure chart highlights six federal government programs, eight Hawaii programs, and four Honolulu programs that funnel taxpayer money to developers and property managers, all with the goal of making housing affordable in Hawaii. There are five voucher programs, three block grant programs, tax credits, tax-exempt bonds, two investment programs, and public housing. Despite similar goals and the duplication of services, the report warns, “interagency cooperation may prove difficult” (page 11).

Why is it “difficult” for the various agencies to work together? Why can’t we combine affordable housing programs and reduce the duplication of services?

Affordable housing is an issue for states and counties. Aside from military housing, I don’t understand why the federal government is involved in affordable housing at all. Right away, we could eliminate six programs and vastly scale down the size of the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

At the state and county level, the state should be responsible for any affordable housing tax credits, block grants, and funding for affordable housing projects; while the county should be responsible for building and maintaining affordable housing units.

After reading through the report, I have to wonder: what is government’s role in affordable housing? How many years is government expected to provide affordable housing? Why doesn’t the General Plan address the personal responsibility for housing?

Think about these questions, and consider some ideas for affordable housing reform:

* Affordable housing should have time-limits, such as three years for individuals and five years for families; they must agree not to have additional children. This encourages people to work hard and save money so they can move out and find a home of their own.

* Affordable housing should include an agreement to contribute to a monthly “Community Day,” one day of work to help clean and maintain the grounds and common areas, for all able adults and older children. This encourages people to have pride in their homes and helps create a sense of community.

* Affordable housing should partner elderly residents and families with young children. This gives people a way to build friendships, offer companionship, and help others.

All of these affordable housing programs are not affordable for taxpayers, and they don’t solve the problem of homelessness. How do you think we can improve the affordable housing programs we have and ensure that they don’t become generational affordable housing programs?

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The confusion of hyphenated school years

October 18, 2011

We’re ten weeks into the 2011-2012 school year, and my son has settled into Kindergarten. It’s almost time for our first parent-teacher conference and quarterly assessments.

But right now I’d like to bring up a small issue, a pet peeve of mine:

Why do we have hyphenated school years, like 2011-2012? What’s wrong with a school year that mirrors a calendar year? The split school year is arbitrary (in Australia, New Zealand, and Malaysia, the school year usually begins in late January and ends in early December) and cumbersome (depending on the month, it takes a moment to figure out what grade someone is in).

Maybe it has to do with government’s fiscal budgets. Maybe it’s about tradition. Maybe no one questions “the way things have always been.” Maybe “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it.”

I don’t know whether there are any advantages or disadvantages to the split school year vs. the calendar school year. But I do think that a calendar school year would be less confusing for everyone. Only school calendar publishers might complain.

Obviously, this is a low-priority issue, practically a non-issue. It’s just something to think about. Hawaii couldn’t do anything to change the school year unless the whole country changed its school year too. But there’s a growing shift to year-round schools, and college students can already graduate in December, saving a semester’s worth of tuition. Why not shift to a calendar school year?

A general plan or a general’s plan for Oahu?

October 11, 2011

Despite community meetings and a website full of background information, there doesn’t seem to be much awareness or excitement about the Oahu General Plan 2035. It was last updated in 2002, and it’s supposed to outline all the goals and policies for the island, covering all aspects of our lives.

I started with the 23-page “Key Planning Issues” report, which defines the Oahu General Plan as “a guide for all levels of government, private sector organizations, and individual citizens, with specific guidance for 11 areas” (page 2). That’s a lot of authority!

There is one glaring assumption that underlies the planning documents and background reports: the idea that government is responsible for all aspects our life. With all of the assumptions being made about government’s power to dictate our lives, is this a general, wide-ranging plan or a general’s plan for expanding government?

Within the various sections, there are 17 questions to think about as we revise the General Plan, from “Should the General Plan emphasize the need for additional jobs and economic growth directed towards Ewa?” to “Given Hawaii’s overall dependence on imports and the barriers that keep us from being completely self-sufficient, what are the specific policies and measures that are appropriate for Oahu and its General Plan?” Read the direction of their policies for yourself.

We need a shared vision forHawaii’s future. But I don’t think we need government mandates dictating our future.

With that in mind, here are the 11 areas of “guidance” in the Oahu General Plan, and the questions that I think we should consider:

1. Population: Should government “control the pace and geographic distribution of development through the City’s regulatory and fiscal powers” (page 4)? If an area has adequate infrastructure, and people want to live there, why should the government “control” where we live and work?

2. Economic activity: Is government responsible for managing and directing business growth? Should government’s role be limited to promoting a fair and honest business environment?

3. Natural environment: Should government “own” undeveloped land (preservation and conservation)? Can the land be more effectively managed by non-profit organizations or conservatories?

4. Housing: The report states, “Existing language in the General Plan supports the desire to provide all Oahu residents with safe, affordable places to live” (page 10). Should government be responsible for providing us with a place to live? Should government’s role be limited to short-term or transitional housing assistance?

5. Transportation and utilities: What does government need in order to efficiently and cost-effectively plan and maintain our utilities, roads, harbors, and airports?

6. Energy: Should government dictate our appliances, our vehicles, and the design of our homes, how much electricity we can use (during peak times) and how much hot water we can use? Should our neighbors subsidize our “green” upgrades?

7. Physical development and urban design: Should government control where we live, what our communities look like, and how we build our homes, as long as developers and homeowners follow building safety codes?

8. Public safety: Should government protect us from ourselves, if we are only harming ourselves? How far can government intrude on our privacy in order to protect us?

9. Health and education: Should government provide free health insurance and free public education? Should the families who benefit from public education pay a larger share of education expenses? Remember, free health insurance and free public education are not rights. The Hawaii Constitution offers “medical assistance” (not free) and guarantees an education system “free from sectarian control” (not free).

10. Culture and recreation: Should government be involved in culture and recreation? Should nonprofit organizations and communities take more responsibility, aside from allowing equal and reasonable access to parks and natural resources?

11. Government operations and fiscal management: How much will it cost to implement all of the policy suggestions in the General Plan? What are government’s core responsibilities? Should there be a limit to the increase in government? Are there duplicate services or unnecessary functions that can be phased out?

The Honolulu Department of Planning and Permitting has extended the deadline to submit your comments until November 30. You can email your comments to gp2035@hhf.com or fax to 808-545-2050. What do you like about the General Plan? What needs to be changed? What is your vision for Oahu’s future?

9 ways to celebrate books

October 4, 2011

October is National Book Month, a celebration of good books, great authors, and enthusiastic readers. It’s probably not as well-known as Read Across America in March, but as an ardent reader, I’ll take any excuse to promote reading and talk about books.

Reading starts at home, and the National Book Foundation offers these five suggestions for getting your family involved:

1. Introduce literature into family game night. Try “Charades” or “Win, Lose, or Draw” with book titles!

2. Take family field trips to the local library. Everyone must check out at least one book.

3. Start a family reading night. Set aside one night to read and discuss a book.

4. Recreate scenes from your favorite book. Draw your own book covers or illustrate memorable scenes.

5. Read to your children every night. Set aside just 20 minutes a day, and before you know it, that’s 120 hours a year – five full days spent reading!

There are also some great tips for teachers to celebrate reading in school. Here are my favorites:

1. Start a classroom door art competition. Each class can decorate their door based on a book. Classrooms could win a pizza party or more books for the library.

2. Write letters to your favorite authors. The authors may even write back!

3. Launch a book swap meet. Students can bring in books they have already read and exchange them with books brought in by other students.

4. Have a reading recess. Convert one of the school recesses each day to independent reading time or impromptu book discussions.

What are your favorite books? Do you share them with your family and friends? How will you celebrate National Book Month?

“Painted Paradise” by Diana Hansen-Young

October 1, 2011

“For the times when your art has lost direction, meaning, and color,” Hawaiian artist and writer Diana Hansen-Young offers “Painted Paradise: Life Lessons from My Hawaiian Easel” (2004). It reveals the artist’s intimate journey to revisit her “life studio,” regain her health, and reinvent her art.

The book is divided into four sections, punctuated with beautiful, vivid paintings and Hawaiian sayings with layers of meaning.

1. Ke‘ena kaha ki‘i: The Painting Studio. Step into your “life studio” again. Hansen-Young encourages us to look back on our life and inspiration, taking out old memories and emotions. She writes, “If life is a series of canvases, then we must claim our right to be the artist” (page 14). One of my favorite paintings in the book is “The Lei Maker,” a woman intently creating vibrant lei.

2. Mana‘o: Ideas. “Ideas for a new life are all around you. Your job is to observe and notice what resonates” (page 27), Hansen-Young reminds us. I love the photograph of four children and the painting “Keikis” that it inspired.

3. Ho‘okumu: Commence. “We must fill our days and nights with the sorcery of creation” (page 46), she challenges. There are two paintings of Pele that are just stunning: “Pele the Creator,” an intense woman whose body is exploding with fire and heat; and “Pele: The Beginning,” a women in movement with fire flaring out around her and from the palm of her hand.

4. Pono Hana: Tools. “Visualization is a very powerful tool for change. It’s even more powerful if you commit that visualization to paper,” Hansen-Young reflects. The most compelling example of visualization is a painting of the artist as a child, sitting next to her two young daughters under a mango tree. “I started to take care of myself as though I were my own little girl” (page 66), Hansen-Young reveals.

“Painted Paradise” is spiritual, inspirational, and sincere. It is a small, intimate book with sleek pages filled with vivid, and lyrical prose. The paintings are filled with beautiful women, warm brown skin, bare feet, bold gazes, and serene profiles.

Slip into the beauty and grace of Hawaii on Diana Hansen-Young’s website at dianahansenyoung.com. She has made all of her images available for free, generously sharing her passion and talent to use under a non-commercial Creative Commons license at http://www.flickr.com/photos/dianahansenyoung.