The future of affordable housing

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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