Hope Services, Realty Interests Host Forum to Discuss Lava and Affordable Housing

From  Ashley L. Kierkiewicz
Hastings & Pleadwell: A Communication Company

(HILO, HAWAII, DECEMBER 3, 2014)— More than 45 of Hawaii Island’s top officials in government, business, construction, academia and the non-profit sector gathered last week in Hilo to discuss the Puna lava situation and its effects on the island’s housing market.

The emergency housing forum, hosted by HOPE Services Hawaii, Hawaii Island Realtors, the National Association of Residential Property Managers (NARPM) and Day Lum Rentals & Management, included roundtable discussions that focused on short- and long-term housing planning, legislative policy and expanding community resources.  

The November 24 forum is intended as the beginning of a larger conversation focused on building more affordable housing on Hawaii Island. An action plan that outlines next steps and leverages private and public partnerships is being created by the forum’s hosts and expected to be complete by first quarter 2015. The plan will identify short and long-term solutions, which will help inform possible legislative policies and provide the basis for maximizing community resources.

During the forum, agency heads discussed what organizations are experiencing as a result of the lava breakout, which started in late June,  has traveled to the edge of Pahoa since, and is now moving downslope on a different path, threatening Pahoa Marketplace and possibly lower Hawaiian Paradise Park. Some presented ideas to alleviate the demand for housing outside of Puna, noting, however, that today’s quick fixes should complement the island’s long-term housing and development plans.

“No one is pretending to have all the answers,” said Mayor Billy Kenoi. “There’s no lava flow manual, so many policy decisions are being made with the best information available. What we’re facing as a community is significant, but the challenges are not insurmountable. The County has been and will continue to be all hands on deck, ready to collaborate, and to share information as it becomes available to lessen anxiety and uncertainty.”

Brandee Menino, chief executive officer for HOPE Services Hawaii, said that while HOPE primarily helps homeless and at-risk individuals and families transition off the streets and obtain stable housing, her office has been getting calls from families displaced by Tropical Storm Iselle and potentially isolated by the lava. She noted that even before this year’s natural disasters, the need for rental units had been identified.

“A 2011 Housing Planning Study prepared for the Hawaii Housing Finance & Development Corporation revealed that Hawaii County would need 1,753 rental units by 2016 in order to meet the growing demand for housing,” said Menino. “This report was done in 2011, when lava was not a concern, so we must make a concerted effort to prioritize creating more affordable housing opportunities for Hawaii’s families.”

Paul Normann, executive director of the Neighborhood Place of Puna (NPP), a resource for distressed families, said Puna has the highest rate of child abuse and neglect in the State. “Because of the disruption caused by Iselle and the active lava flow, NPP has seen a dramatic increase in the number of families seeking assistance. In the first four months of the current fiscal year, July through October, NPP has already served 106 families. To put that in context, over the course of the entire 12 months of the previous fiscal year, NPP served a total of 130 families.

Nancy Cabral of Day-Lum said that some families wanted to get ahead of the lava and had moved from the area. But Cabral is concerned with those who haven’t. “There are a lot of residents who have not been preparing for what’s coming. It seems they are waiting for government to step in and rescue them, so we really need to take steps to ready the housing market.”

Cabral offered solutions to stave off a potential housing crisis including working with hotels to temporarily rent out rooms, helping families to move their houses to vacant lots and lobbying the State to relinquish control to the County of affordable units such as Lanakila Housing, since the county may be able to move faster to make the units available to those looking to relocate from Puna.

Mark Kimura, an economic geography researcher at the University of Hawaii at Hilo, who conducted an informal survey of Puna residents, said almost half reported they had no one to rely on or place to go if they needed to move. Fourteen  percent said they have already left the area or are preparing to leave and 25 percent said they could move-in with family or friends on-island. He said many don’t want to give up their homes because they are still paying mortgages, have farms, can’t afford to move or have difficulty finding places that are pet-friendly or retrofitted for people with disabilities.

Amanda Donaldson, President of NARPM’s East Hawaii chapter, which is made up of about 20 local residential property managers, said members get nearly a dozen additional calls a day from families looking for housing outside the lava zone. She said NARPM agents are willing to add addendums that allow individuals in the lava impact zone to break their lease once lava hits.

Kehau Costa of Hawaii Island Realtors championed a “one-stop-shop” rentals Web site where interested renters can view available units on the island, which would speed up house hunting. Costa also suggested a “new landlord resource fair” because of the increasing number of individuals asking how they can convert part of or their entire home into a rental.

Additional ideas that came out of the forum include exploring commuter housing, house sharing, prepping lands for modular housing, fast tracking County building permit processes as well as County take over, repair and rental of foreclosure homes.

Any individuals or organizations interested in taking part in future discussions may contact Brandee Menino at bmenino@hopeserviceshawaii.org or .

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