Vanessa Medeiros is running for the Maui County Council seat representing Kahului, which is currently held by Don Guzman. She owns Positive Pathways, a finishing school for young women. During Charmaine Tavares’ mayoral administration, Medeiros served as Housing and Human Concerns director from February 2007 to September 2008. Though clearly capable and competent at her job, The Maui News characterized her relations with the Maui County Council as “rocky” at the time of her resignation.
MAUITIME: What is your top priority if elected?
VANESSA MEDEIROS: My top priority is to look at housing solutions and housing options for our families. In the early 1990s the then-Mayor took the County out of the housing business. The known fact was, and is, that when government does something, it costs more than if done by those in the private sector. (Look at the rail project on Oahu.) Based on the concept of market forces, it was deemed that competition among developers would drive the costs down. This did not, and has not, happened. Developers have simply sat on their land–while the demand has been great, the supply has only driven up prices. Second, the government–both State and County–began to push the cost of infrastructure onto developers.
A few years ago Lokahi Pacific developed seven single-family homes in Kihei. The infrastructure costs alone were over $100,000 per unit. That is the reality.
Here are some of the challenges we face:
- There are a myriad of assessments that can add $50,000 to $70,000 to the cost of each housing unit, not to mention environmental issues.
- The length of time it takes to go through the subdivision and development process adds costs.
- Some developers are not invested in our communities. Their only focus is to take the money and run. As a result, we saw several developments where roads were not properly turned over to the County, leaving homeowners with a hidden liability.
- NIMBYism. We want to control growth, but at the same time, we are thousands of housing units short of where we should be.
- Environmental concerns: how do we develop responsible housing without offending the environmentalists?
- Local families have limited access to land. Large tracts of land are in the hands of a few, and some of these landowners are outside of our communities.
- What is a reasonable price for a home? The County likes to point to the Affordable Housing Sales Price Guidelines, which is based on the HUD Income data, and everyone is led to believe that those guidelines are etched in stone.
The Council’s answer for the past few decades is to encourage rental housing through the building of “ohana cottages” on increasingly smaller and smaller lots, or converting single family homes to multi-family rentals. We are simply creating higher density and “slumming” sectors of our community. Kids cannot walk safely to school because cars are blocking sidewalks. We do not see as many people taking walks in our neighborhoods because they are afraid.
The concerns about developing “more” housing, and thinking it will bring “more” people are not necessarily valid. We already have two, three, and four families living in one house. So providing truly affordable housing options does not necessarily increase the population, it just allows us to reduce the overcrowding
People say, “keep Maui, Maui.” Which Maui is that? The one that embodies the true feeling of aloha and cares about it’s people, or the one you read about in the travel magazines?
Here are some of the opportunities:
- Re-think the starter home design. Many of the turn-key homes are built with “additives” that add to the cost. Have we considered what families would be amenable to in terms of a starter home? Would they be amenable to housing on leased property?
- Work with some of our local builders who “get it” and can come up with potential designs that are affordable.
- With the closure of HC&S, there are potential leased lands owned by the State that could be converted to housing, the initial concern is, of course, any chemicals that may be in the ground from the decades of sugar.
- Re-think the urban growth boundaries (UGB) identified in the General Plan. I’m not saying we should have widespread development, but let’s discuss it’s impact on truly affordable housing. Is the UGB based on NIMBYism?
The price of housing is also an issue. We may not be able to do anything about the current inventory, except to encourage realtors to seek local buyers before they look for investors, but for new developments, we should re-visit the County’s Affordable Housing Sales Price Guidelines (AHSPG). The guidelines are derived from HUD income limits data relating to the median income of an area. The AHSPG will indicate what the affordable price should be for families at a certain percentage of the median income based on the number of bedrooms, interest rate, and whether it is a single-family or multi-family unit.
The County calculates and publishes these guidelines each time the HUD income limits change, and is calculated on the basis that the cost of housing should be at 30 percent of gross income. We are all led to believe that these computations are etched in stone, but who says we cannot legislate the amounts downward? The reality is that most families are paying 35-50% of their net income for housing. How can we expect to give our kids hope and opportunities when we can barely keep a roof over our heads? How many children are being left behind because their parents have to work 2-3 jobs?
Second, there is only a thin layer of families who are actually at the specific percentage of median income. For instance, if your family is at 79 percent of median income, you will not qualify for a home being sold at the 80 percent of median income price guideline. So when developers claimed they could not find “qualified” families to which to sell their affordable homes, this is the reason. This results in homes being sold to investors, and are now being rented out.
So what is the answer? What do we want, a healthy vibrant community with a sense of place, or to keep pushing our families into corners so that Maui becomes the playground for the rich and influential? The NIMBYs have to stop NIMBYing!
MT: What event in your life best prepared you for public office?
VM: There is no single event. My preparation comes as a culmination of all the experiences that I have, both good and bad. I worked 12 years at a non-profit of which 10 of those years were spent writing for federal grants and overseeing the development of affordable rental housing and congregate facilities. I also put together a “first-in-the-nation” combination of two federal funding programs (HUD Section 202 and USDA-RD Section 515) on one project, which required research and coordination with both the Hawaii and D.C. offices of both agencies. I also developed and implemented a mortgage delinquency, housing counseling and homebuyer education program, and used this program to help families avoid foreclosure and gain financial literacy.
I spent six years with the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands on Maui, and helped to improve the relationship of the department with the beneficiaries here on Maui, as well as assist many families who were on the verge of losing their homes through delinquencies. My assistance was sought after by beneficiaries on the neighbor islands, because they heard that I was “the one that helped people.” That, I believe, is a testament to who I am.
I think that my strength is the desire to try to help people, regardless of their background, as long as their intentions were ethical.
MT: Who should be the next President of the United States?
VM: This year’s presidential election will be an interesting. Do we finally make history by electing a female president or do we continue the history of electing males? Both have strengths and weaknesses. I have not decided yet. It may depend on who the potential vice presidential candidate is, and who is less likely to lead us to war.
MT: Which person who previously held the office you are seeking do you hold up as a model? Why?
VM: I have a few. Velma McWayne Santos, who was one of the first councilwomen, Leina`ala Teruya Drummond, who was a former Miss Hawaii, and current member Gladys Baisa are roles models that I respect. Velma was a strong personality, articulate, and not afraid to speak her mind. Leina`ala was gracious and eloquent. As a pageant trainer, it was great to see the progression beyond “just being a pageant queen.” She was a leader who cared for the people and wanted to make a difference. Lastly, we have current member Gladys Baisa. Of course, we have the “Portuguese” connection. She worked her way up to become a leader of a large non-profit organization that served the community, and then continued her leadership and service on the Council. There are others. I think that we have had great female leadership on the Council, but we need more representation.
MT: What’s your opinion on changing the County Charter to a county manager form of government? Why?
VM: I’m still on the fence on this. I think the push for a change of government comes from: 1) some of the appointments of department leadership that lack qualifications; and 2) a lack of consistency in departmental operations. At the same time, I am not convinced that having the Council decide who the leadership is going to be is the best method. It should not be a popularity contest or payback or about hiring family and friends. (Look at the appointment of the County Clerk. Was that person really qualified for that position?)
I would certainly support better consistency in departmental operations, which comes from consistent good and consistent leadership. The County would save a lot of money. I have been both an appointee (I believe I had sufficient credentials to be deemed qualified) and an employee of the County, and I have seen and experienced how these changes in leadership negatively impact the productivity and careers of good employees.
MT: Do you support changing the County Charter to allow the mayor, as opposed to the Liquor Commission, to appoint the Liquor Control Director?
VM: No. I think that the Liquor Commission, like the Police and Fire and Public Safety Commissions should be able to handle that task. Maybe we need more diversity on the Commission.
MT: What should the county do that it isn’t already doing to alleviate homelessness?
VM: It should focus on providing affordable housing options AND the State should make a provision for mental health services a priority. The reality is that homelessness will never be fully resolved. We do not have the tax base to truly alleviate homelessness.
I recall a study which found that many of the homeless in Hawaii was being sent here from other states, or are encouraged to come due to our “mild climate,” but once here, they have nowhere to go and many have “issues” whether it be mental illness, or drug or alcohol abuse. These issues do not make them good candidates for transitional or permanent housing options,and they are not idiots. They are smart people who are just down on their luck.
The real question is whether we are focused on “alleviating” homelessness or just are wanting those who fit this category or “label” to be “out-of-sight out-of-mind.”
Millions are spent on band-aid fixes, and all it does is condition those who are homeless to look out for the regular government hand-outs. Those who truly want to be helped, will get help, and having housing options that affordable is critical. However, it will not “alleviate” homelessness, because if we become “successful” the word will get out and more will come.
MT: HC&S is closing at the end of the year—what do you think A&B should do with the 37,000 acres that were used for growing sugar?
VM: Agricultural activities should certainly be continued in some form, and I am sure A&B is contemplating this move. Any business worth its salt will have strategic plans in place, but everyone needs to understand that farming is not easy. There are no guarantees of success, and the farmers will be the first to tell you that. Look at what happened to the papaya farmer on the Big Island whose trees were cut down. How long do you think it took for that family to recover?
Being a farmer or a rancher is a lifestyle choice. Most grew up in the business, and it is a hands-on activity not to be taken lightly.
There is an old saying that when one door closes another one opens. For A&B and for our community, I see potential opportunities for agriculture, and I am sure if they explored the options. Say what you will about A&B, but they have been an integral part of our community for over 100 years. I am confident that they will see the value in continuing to invest in our communities.
Photo courtesy Vanessa Medeiros