Lawmakers take on housing crisis

Honolulu Star Advertiser - May 2, 2018
By: 
Nanea Kalani and Kevin Dayton

Lawmakers say they made good on their pledge to address the state’s homeless and affordable-housing crises with strategies they described as groundbreaking and bold during the 2018 legislative session, which ends Thursday.

Studies estimate the state needs to add more than 25,000 units to the housing inventory on Oahu alone over the next decade to keep up with demand, with much of the need for middle- and lower-income families. Meanwhile, Hawaii continues to lead the nation with the highest per capita rate of homelessness.

The House and Senate gave final approval Tuesday to close to 200 measures, including several aimed at helping tackle homelessness and housing issues along with bills to ban use of the pesticide chlorpyrifos and certain sunscreen products, and prohibit conversion therapy for youth.

“Homelessness and housing was the top priority for this legislative session, and I’d like to say that we delivered,” Senate Housing Committee Chairman Will Espero (D, Ewa Beach-Iroquois Point) said. “I do believe that this is the year and the first step where hopefully down the road we will start to see some significant changes.”

FAILED: THE HIGHLIGHTS
>> Mauna Kea: Would have banned new construction on the mountain pending an audit.

>> Styrofoam ban: Would have banned sale and use of foam food containers.

>> Airport corporation: Would have created a corporation to run Hawaii airports.

>> Retirement savings: Would have offered savings plan for private employees.

>> Vacation rentals: Would have collected taxes from vacation rentals marketed online.

PASSED: THE HIGHLIGHTS

>> Pesticide ban: Would ban use of the pesticide chlorpyrifos in Hawaii.

>> Sunscreen ban: Would restrict sale of certain sunscreen products.

>> Ohana zones: Would create officially sanctioned living areas for homeless.

>> Failure to aid: Would allow longer prison terms for certain hit-and-run motorists.

>> Kauai relief: Would provide $125 million for Kauai and Oahu flood recovery.

In all, lawmakers set aside nearly $50 million this year for homelessness initiatives and $600 million for affordable-housing programs.

State Sen. Josh Green (D, Naalehu-Kailua-Kona) called Senate Bill 2401 — which includes $30 million to establish ohana zones on public land — a “landmark piece of legislation.”

“I know some people in the public wonder why we would invest so much in solving the homeless crisis,” said Green, chairman of the Senate Human Services Committee. “When you look at the complexity of the lives of the 8,000 individuals in Hawaii who are homeless and see that 20 percent are chronically homeless, many of whom suffer with addiction or mental illness, you begin to see the value of taking on this problem aggressively.”

Under the bill, the governor would need to determine the locations of ohana zones, with at least three sites on Oahu and one site each on Kauai, Maui and Hawaii island.

It defines ohana zones as places where homeless individuals can access resources for basic needs and where social and health care services and transportation could be offered. The stated goal is to “alleviate poverty and transition individuals experiencing homelessness into affordable housing.”

The measure also calls for a $1 million pilot program to deter excessive hospital emergency room visits for nonemergency purposes by homeless individuals.

Green said roughly 3.5 percent of Medicaid users consume $1.2 billion of the state’s annual $2 billion Medicaid budget, which provides health insurance for low-income and needy people.

“Not only are we going to help many of the individuals who suffer the greatest on our streets, which include many children; we will also see a good investment of our resources while people suffer less,” he said.

The bill further sets aside funding for pre-­arrest diversion programs on Maui and Hawaii island, where homeless people who commit minor crimes could receive social services instead of jail time.

Funding for housing

Lawmakers also approved a hefty funding package to help finance affordable-­housing and rental projects.

House Bill 2748 provides $570 million for affordable housing, including money for the state Rental Housing Revolving Fund and an expansion of an excise tax exemption for construction. The investment is expected to fund development of 25,000 units by 2030 for middle- and lower-income families.

Senate Bill 2293, which also won final approval Tuesday, provides $30 million to expedite and complete construction of a 200-unit state affordable-­housing project in Lahaina.

In the House, state Rep. Gene Ward said that despite the commitment of large sums to provide more housing, the state will still be tens of thousands of units short of the demand in the years ahead.

“We’re still going to be 25,000 short, so we’ve got to face the numbers,” said Ward (R, Kalama Valley-­Queen’s Gate-Hawaii Kai). “This is a good election year gesture, but it doesn’t solve the problem.”

He said the bill should be a “lever” to free up more resources for housing “every year, not just this year.”

Chemical bans

Lawmakers, meanwhile, approved a ban on the pesticide chlorpyrifos beginning Jan. 1, and another ban effective Jan. 1, 2021, on sunscreen products containing oxybenzone or octinoxate.

State Sen. Mike Gabbard, chairman of the Agriculture and Environment Committee, said an estimated 6,000 tons of sunscreen ends up in the waters surrounding the islands annually. On Maui an estimated 55 gallons of sunscreen is deposited into nearshore waters daily.

“This legislation is a big step forward for the protection of our coral reefs, marine life and human health,” Gabbard (D, Kapolei-Makakilo) said.

The effective date was delayed to allow sunscreen makers to reformulate their products and prevent an increase of skin cancer.

The pesticide bill calls for 100-foot buffer zones around public and private schools during school hours and requires all users of restricted-use pesticides to file annual disclosure reports on quantities, locations and dates.

State Rep. Lynn DeCoite (D, Lanai-Molokai-Paia-Hana) criticized the measure, saying, “The local farms targeted in this bill are the ones that supply most of our local food. Unwarranted and new regulations will hurt those local farmers. Can we afford to lose more farmers to unjustified new regulations?”

She also questioned provisions in the bill that allow the state Department of Agriculture to grant temporary permits for the use of chlorpyrifos until 2022, which she said is “not in line with the intent of this bill, which is to protect our keiki and our communities.”

But state Rep. Matt LoPresti (D, Ewa Villages-­Ocean Pointe-Ewa Beach) said, “People have been crying out for the state to take action, and this bill is a step in that direction.”

The measure passed in the House on a 50-0 vote, with state Rep. Roy Takumi excused. It passed in the Senate 25-0.

Heated debate

In the House, debate over a bill to prohibit treatments designed to change the sexual orientation of minors led to an outburst on the floor. Senate Bill 270 would prohibit professional counselors from offering sexual orientation-change therapy to anyone under 18.

State Rep. Bob McDermott (R, Ewa Beach-Iroquois Point) called the bill “over-broad” and said some children have unwanted sexual attractions and might want to seek help but likely would be unable to under the bill.

At one point McDermott said that transgender people “by very definition have a psychological disorder.” That prompted state Rep. Sean Quinlan to interrupt: “I disagree with calling, saying all transgender people have a psychological disorder. I don’t think that’s correct.”

McDermott then demanded a recess, and witnesses said he complained that Quinlan was “out of order.”

The bill passed 45-5 when the session resumed, with McDermott and state Reps. Ward, Isaac Choy, Sharon Har and Sam Kong voting against it. In the Senate the bill passed 24-1, with Gabbard voting no.

The approved measures next head to Gov. David Ige for further consideration.