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County Housing Agency delays approval of action plan for housing buyout program funds

The County Housing Agency last week voted to postpone approval of an action plan that details how more than $83 million in federal disaster recovery money will be spent.

The Hawaii County Council on Friday also voted to postpone until Nov. 18 action on a resolution that would permit Mayor Harry Kim to enter into an agreement with U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for the funding.

The postponements were made as the county prepares for a new administration to take over next month following the Nov. 3 general election.

The Community Development Block Grant-Disaster Recovery funds largely will be used for a voluntary housing buyout program aimed at helping Puna residents whose homes were destroyed during the 2018 eruption of Kilauea volcano.

The program was expected to start in April 2021.

“Because we have no action plan that has been approved by the Housing Agency, my preference is that we defer this particular resolution and the companion measure to the next council meeting,” said Puna Councilwoman Ashley Kierkiewicz.

The motion to postpone a resolution was unanimously approved.

First reading of a bill that will amend the county’s operating budget to appropriate the $83.84 million in block grant money, however, was approved.

“We respect the decision of the Housing Agency and County Council to work with the new administration and have further engagement with community members before finalizing these housing recovery programs,” said Disaster Recovery Officer Douglas Le on Friday. “We know that there are many households who look to a buyout program to support their own recovery as we continue to hear from residents asking about the program’s status.

“With this in mind we continue work to stand up this program with HUD as one tool in the community’s recovery,” he continued. “As additional housing solutions may take shape, we will seek necessary approvals with the Housing Agency and County Council at the appropriate time.”

In late October, Le told the Tribune-Herald that the county spent the past few months working with HUD to officially secure the CDBG-DR funding and move forward with the buyout program.

In order to receive the federal money, HUD required the county to submit an action plan detailing how the allocation will be used.

Le said $78 million of the CDBG-DR funding will be used for the buyout program and another $4.8 million will be used for administrative costs. The remainder will be used for housing relocation services.

The initial action plan was submitted to HUD on Aug. 31 for approval and approved by the federal housing agency Oct. 15.

“Really, the next step is to sign the grant agreement with HUD, which enables the money to flow,” Le said in late October.

The buyout program will acquire through voluntary sales properties affected by the 2018 eruption. That includes properties that were inundated or isolated by lava, suffered physical damage or were physically impacted by secondary effects.

The offers are based on the pre-disaster appraised market value of the property, and the maximum buyout offer is $230,000.

The months-long eruption, which started in May 2018 in Leilani Estates, destroyed 723 structures, including 612 homes, 294 of which were primary residences.

According to Le, CDBG-DR funds can be used for housing, economic revitalization and infrastructure.

Le, however, said the county is using that funding for the buyout program because the federal register notice, which details how grant money is to be spent, required grant recipients to address unmet housing recovery needs first before allocating funding toward other potential projects.

“The housing need is still pretty dramatic,” he said.

The county has identified $269 million in housing impacts from the eruption, Le said, but only $23 million in assistance from other agencies, such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency or the Small Business Administration, has been received.

“(There is) still a big gap around unmet housing recovery needs,” he said.

Le said HUD also has a long-established policy that its funding cannot be used for permanent residential development in lava zones 1 and 2.

According to Le, about 90 households have expressed to case managers at Neighborhood Place of Puna — the nonprofit contracted to assist individuals and families recovering from the eruption — interest in the buyout program, and another 40 who have sought more information from the county.

While the program was anticipated to begin in April, Le said Friday that a better sense of a timeline will be available in the coming months.

Email Stephanie Salmons at ssalmons@hawaiitribune-herald.com.
Source: Hawaii Tribune Herald

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