A low-rent project’s first section formally opens, and work on its second is blessed
By Andrew Gomes | April 29, 2013
Velma Pantohan once was homeless. She also spent three years staying in a shelter. But since October she has lived with her son in a new two-bedroom apartment with granite countertops, laminate flooring and a lanai overlooking a grassy courtyard with children’s play equipment.
The 62-year-old Pantohan considers herself lucky because she was the No. 2 selection in a lottery of 300 people who sought to rent 64 low-income apartments in Ewa Beach comprising the first phase of a project called Villages of Moa‘e Ku.
“I came from the beach,” she said. “I was living in Hau Bush (Oneula Beach Park).”
On Oct. 5, Pantohan and her 19-year-old son became the first residents to move into Moa‘e Ku. “It’s beautiful here,” she said. “It was a blessing for my son and me.”
A ceremony was held Friday to celebrate the grand opening of Moa‘e Ku’s first phase and also to bless the start of construction on the second of three phases for the 192-unit affordable-housing project.
The dual ceremony attended by Gov. Neil Abercrombie, Mayor Kirk Caldwell and numerous other elected officials and project team members was an especially momentous occasion, given that public-private plans to develop affordable housing on the parcel of land once known as Area H in Ewa Villages date back to the 1990s.
“This project almost didn’t happen — several times,” said City Councilwoman Kymberly Pine.
“Developing affordable housing is a contact sport,” he said. “Many obstacles were placed in our way, and if we had known better we would have strapped on our helmets before we ran through them."
Area H was part of the city’s ambitious effort to revitalize the historic plantation town in Ewa Beach and preserve plantation-worker homes by buying Ewa Villages from Amfac/JMB in the early 1990s.
An initial deal was made for the union-affiliated nonprofit Unity House to buy the 24-acre Area H parcel and build rental homes for former sugar workers and families making less than 80 percent of Honolulu’s median income.
Unity House canceled its plan in 1998, however, because it said the city was providing insufficient financial support. The city offered $1.9 million in federal community development block grant funds to help the firm buy the land from the city for $5.7 million.
In 1999 the city tentatively selected an affiliate of EAH to pursue the project. But it took until 2003 to complete the land purchase for $5.9 million, of which $5 million was from city-administered federal block grant funds.
At that time, EAH projected finishing the first phase in 2007. But it took much longer than anticipated to secure enough key federal funding through competitive awards administered by the city, Carney said.
A plan to sell an 8-acre piece of Area H fronting the Ewa Villages Golf Course to a for-profit housing developer to help finance costly infrastructure work involved lengthy city and federal approvals, Carney added.
Other pieces of the difficult-to-assemble financing puzzle included money from the state rental housing trust fund, tax-exempt bonds, low-income housing tax credits, federal neighborhood stabilization program funds and private loans.
EAH couldn’t borrow a lot for the roughly $90 million project because the rental income wouldn’t be enough to pay off a large debt.
The roughly $30 million first phase of Moa‘e Ku finally broke ground in 2011. In addition to the lottery that attracted 300 entrants, another 200 people applied for a unit in the first phase — a turnout that shows how critical the need is for low-income rentals on Oahu, where median home prices are about $340,000 for condominiums and $640,000 for single-family homes.
Rents at Moa‘e Ku range from about $500 to $1,500 a month for units with one to three bedrooms and from 674 square feet to 1,119 square feet.
Annual household income limits equate to about $20,000 for a single person or $29,000 for a family of four at the 30 percent level, and about $41,000 for a single person or $59,000 for a family of four at the 60 percent level.
Gov. Abercrombie and Mayor Caldwell pledged steadfast support to do what they can to help facilitate affordable-housing development.
“This is a partnership,” Caldwell said. “We’re going to continue to work together. We need to build more units like this.”
The 76-unit second phase of Moa‘e Ku is projected to be completed in May 2014. A third phase with 52 units is anticipated to be ready to break ground when the second phase is finished if close to $30 million in financing can be raised. Carney said EAH has so far secured $2 million of that.
Kevin Carney, vice president of EAH Housing Hawaii, the nonprofit company developing Moa‘e Ku, referred to the people involved with the project as proud survivors who lost brain cells trying to deliver the homes that are reserved for residents earning 30 to 60 percent of Honolulu’s median income.
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