Hawaii Tax Foundation: Helping Hawaii’s Poor Help Themselves

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BY LOWELL L. KALAPA – A couple of years ago when the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands announced that it was issuing 3,000 new leases in the Kapolei area as a result of a land swap, it had all the potential of becoming a ghetto that once built would be out of sight and out of mind.

That concern gave rise to what eventually will become a community resource center, providing homesteaders in the Kapolei development with access to a myriad of support services that could range from job training to health care to financial literacy.


While it is not appropriate to make a generalization, more than likely most homesteaders are in need of such services as they obviously were not able to acquire a home of their own and thus applied for homestead residences.

And this is the point that public housing officials seem to overlook when it comes to the homeless and public housing.  They see their job as merely providing a roof over the heads of the poor who live in public housing and getting the homeless off the beaches and sidewalks by herding them into encampments or shelters.

While that may be a first step, to provide shelter, officials must look beyond that to the reason why these folks need subsidized shelter.

Obviously, the poor and the homeless do not have the resources to acquire shelter on their own for a variety of reasons.  It may be that they don’t have an education or they don’t have job skills, or they lack the financial literacy to manage and utilize what little resources they have.

Unless they are able to acquire these skill sets, they will always be dependent on government for their shelter.  Unfortunately, unless there is a shift in this paradigm, there will never be a sufficient supply of public housing or homeless shelters to house all of those in need.

Years ago the federal government learned this lesson when they stopped building public housing and instead leveraged what limited resources were allocated to provide subsidized housing by providing incentives and financial instruments that made it attractive for private investors to undertake the task.

Today, the federal government appears also to be withdrawing from substantial grants to build public housing favoring instead providing grants that will allow greater access to support services by the residents of public housing projects by linking housing improvements with appropriate services – schools, public assets, transportation and access to jobs.  This is the goal of the new HUD program called Choice Neighborhoods.

This seems to be based on the strategy that the only way more public housing will become available is to create vacancies in existing public housing by helping those who are currently in public housing to move out.  In order to do so, those who are in public housing must be given the skills they need to be self-sufficient.  While in the short-term that may mean additional cost to government, over the long term if these families become productive members of the community they will, in turn, contribute to the tax base.

Public housing officials in Hawaii can’t see past the dilapidated facilities that all have come to associate with the term “public housing.”  They argue that they don’t have the resources to fix the current inventory of public housing let alone provide the support services that are crucial to the exit strategy for residents.

And why should this be of concern to us as taxpayers?  As long as the issue of homelessness and the waiting list for public housing continues to grow, the more resources the state will need to address this problem.  And this problem has been with us for more than 50 years when the first major public housing project was built.  Public housing policymakers still don’t understand what it will take to turn this situation around.

While the Public Housing Authority is undertaking renovation of some of the public housing facilities, no provisions are being made to create an exit strategy for the families in public housing.  These project renovations amount to nothing more that a paint and patch, band-aid treatment and instead of trying to solve the problem of the shortage of public housing, they will perpetuate the problem.  The real losers in this game are the taxpayers who will have to continue to finance a failed strategy and the families in public housing who will have no hope of being able to move out of public housing.

Even the federal government, through the department of housing and urban development, has recognized the importance of providing supportive services that residents of public housing can access.  It is too bad that public housing officials in Hawaii still don’t get it!

Lowell Kalapa is the president of the Tax Foundation of Hawaii.