The resignation of the state’s first-ever chief housing officer shows “how difficult it is to get things done in government,” Grassroot Institute Director of Strategic Campaigns Ted Kefalas said last week during the Rick Hamada Program on NewsRadio 830 KHVH.
“It’s really sad because [Nani Medeiros] was somebody that was really committed to trying to address this housing crisis,” Kefalas told host Rick Hamada. “That being said, I think Nani made some real momentum for us, and it’s up to us to carry the torch for her.”
Kefalas also acknowledged “justifiable concern” over the governor’s recent emergency proclamation on housing and called for the counties to “take the lead and change a lot of these housing laws for good.”
The emergency proclamation was a result of “years of inaction from our state and county elected officials,” he said, emphasizing that “we can’t continue to do nothing and expect the problem to just go away.”
Kefalas noted, though, that he’s “glad that the governor and his administration are kind of singing the same tune that we’ve been singing for years.”
“The proclamation connects the dots between overregulation and high housing prices, so we at least are hopeful that this can jumpstart really the private sector in developing homes and just increasing our supply,” he said. “We all too often talk about stopping demand and getting rid of foreign investors and short-term rentals, but really, we need to increase the supply.”
Earlier in the program, Kefalas talked about how Hawaii’s housing crisis is only going to intensify following the fires that ravaged Maui last month and completely destroyed Lahaina.
“We have so many people that are now displaced. They don’t have their homes; they don’t have their jobs. So, we really need action now,” he said.
On that note, Kefalas said Maui’s economic recovery — as well as the state’s — is top-of-mind for the Institute.
“What can we do to make sure that our economic situation is such where we’re promoting regrowth and rebuilding in Lahaina, as well as throughout the state?” he asked. “There’s other organizations that are looking at some of the causes right now, and that’ll come out. But we’re really focused on how can we try to, like I said, promote that economic regrowth and rebirth of Hawaii.”
To hear the entire conversation, click on the image below. A complete transcript follows.
9-6-23 Ted Kefalas on Rick Hamada
Rick Hamada: Ted Kefalas with Grassroot Institute. Ted, it is good to see you.
Ted Kefalas: Hey, Rick. Good to be back with you.
Hamada: It’s been a while. A couple months, a month or two? Something like that?
Kefalas: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. But always a good time when we get the chance to chat.
Hamada: I have a spare shirt in the filing cabinet if you wouldn’t mind changing out of the one you’re wearing.
Kefalas: Yeah, go [Detroit] Lions after last night. That was a heck of a start to the football season, and we love to see it. Just thought it was a great game and love that my Lions came out on top. So, it’s one of the few times that I can wear this shirt out in public.
Hamada: Wow. I think you should work with John Matthews on this segment because he’s a Lions fan, and you’d sing out of the same hymnal.
Kefalas: Oh perfect. We’re few and far to come by, so it’s good to have someone else there. But repping the Honolulu blue.
Hamada: There you go. I Love it, love it.
Let’s jump in. We have time together — Grassroot Institute, of course. Ted, I’m just going to start with — it’s Maui, one month later: Your thoughts?
Kefalas: Well, I think, you know, the dust is still kind of settling, and the community is still very clearly angry about what happened. A lot of people obviously know: President Biden pledged the $700 to Lahaina residents that were affected by the fires.
But there were also private organizations. So, there’s groups like Hawaii Community Foundation — their Maui Strong Fund. They have raised well over $100 million for victims of the fire, and that’s a huge number.
These — there are other groups out there — the Red Cross — that are doing amazing work in coordination with the state, local and federal government.
You know, the cleanup efforts are still underway, right? It’s — if you see pictures and whatnot, it’s dotted with crews dressed head-to-toe in hazmat gear and hard hats, and it’s a pretty hard sight to see, you know? And unfortunately, a lot of people are not going to be able to get back to their land for a little while while the cleanup efforts are going on.
So, right now, crews from the Environmental Protection Agency, they’re going property to property looking for hazardous materials. Things like propane tanks, batteries, fertilizers that might have been in the wreckage.
And, you know, officials have warned that that could go on for months, which, you know, is pretty unnerving if you have a property in the affected area. So far, I think, I saw that they’ve cleared about 340 properties; it’s close to like 15% of the area. So, it just goes to show you how much there is left for them to do.
But, you know, once this process is done, then they’re going to have to remove the ash and debris and whatnot before we can even really start rebuilding.
You know, it’s a shame, FEMA reported I think about close to 6,000 people are currently staying in hotels and whatnot funded by the state and Red Cross.
But then there’s also, you know, I mentioned earlier some of the private organizations. You know, Airbnb — for all the victimization that they face, and people want to point fingers when it comes to short-term rentals — you know, they’ve been a huge partner in this in trying to house people that are, have been displaced.
Hamada: Wow. There is a … We talk about the proverbial onion and peeling back a layer and another and another. We’re engaged in a great deal of speculation of what it’s going to take.
In the last hour, [we] concentrated on the folks who have suffered — continue to suffer — and the help and assistance we can provide. But also, when questions are asked, answers are demanded.
Now, the governor is going to make a public address at noon today, and we’ll cover it here. But I want to get your take just in two areas of truth and transparency of your observational assessment of how that’s going, and I think I may have an idea because you started by saying that there’s anger within the community.
Kefalas: Yeah, I think there’s a lot of anger because there’s a lot of questions that are still left unanswered. You know, if you listen to the mayor’s recent video, there were a lot of kind of statements that didn’t really get to the bottom of anything.
And so, the one kind of encouraging thing is that, you know, [House] Speaker [Kevin] McCarthy came, visited, and I think the U.S. House Oversight Committee is going to open up a probe into exactly what happened and the kind of response efforts there.
I know there’s also been talk, Gov. [Josh] Green initially, once everything happened, talked about a special session. I don’t know that there’s been a ton of movement on that yet, but you never know.
That being said, I know the state House — Speaker [Scott] Saiki — and they are in the process of setting up several working groups, and I believe those are going to be led by Reps. [Linda] Ichiyama and Rep. [Darius] Kila.
And so, they’re trying to gather more information on the disaster response, what can be done to make sure that this doesn’t happen again — not just on Maui; but, you know, you look at the west side of Oahu — that’s a very prone area too to wildfires. And, you know, Big Island as well. So, what can we do to make sure this doesn’t happen again elsewhere?
And then looking forward, what can we do to make sure that our economic situation is such where we’re promoting regrowth and rebuilding in Lahaina, as well as throughout the state?
I mean, you know, we need to be in a position where we are one of the top states for business. And unfortunately, we’re — we usually rank towards the end.
Hamada: I want to thank you for leading off with that because it is obviously so very top of mind and one month later.
But explain the role of Grassroot Institute of Hawaii in the public domain.
Kefalas: Sure. Well, you know, I do want to say real quick a few things that, you know, we’ve been looking at, especially with the Maui fire situation and a few things that I hope that the state government can look at.
You know, one would be passing a uniform emergency volunteer practitioner policy, which essentially, it suspends licensing requirements during an emergency for healthcare providers. We saw a similar proposal in the past, and the governor has done — you know, he’s included that in his emergency proclamation.
But we need something that’s more permanent. There’s, I believe,19 states that are doing something that have adopted something similar to this. And that’s important because in Hawaii, we face a lot of natural disasters and emergencies.
So, you know, at the Grassroot Institute, we’re really looking to try to find solutions and looking forward. You know, I think there’s other organizations that are looking at some of the causes right now, and that’ll come out. But we’re really focused on how can we try to, like I said, promote that economic regrowth and rebirth of Hawaii so that we can be leading the country in a lot of these things.
You know, another thing that I’m really hoping that they can at least look at is creating a state water protocol. You know, we saw on Maui, water’s so crucial that they couldn’t fight the fires with the water. I mean, I saw so many stories that there were these issues — there were these wants to divert the waters from the streams to help fight some of these fires, and they weren’t able to.
So, we need to have some sort of a state water code change. Something that, you know, I think there was a bill back in 2022 that would have done this. It specified that fire safety is a beneficial use of water, which, to me, I think that is a beneficial use of water, but there may be some others that disagree with that.
And then, you know, I think finally, when looking at Maui, we need to create some sort of a formal response and a formal plan on the use of emergency sirens. So many folks were angry that there was no use of the sirens and that, you know, everything that they had heard from county and state officials — it was too late.
So, you know, how can we try to fix that in the future and make sure that the people are able to respond in the right way?
Hamada: We’re talking with Ted from Grassroot Institute. It is 8:19 in the morning.
I’m going to get back to my question: Tell us about the role of Grassroot Institute.
Kefalas: Yeah, so Grassroot Institute, we’re really trying to work to promote lowering the cost of living in Hawaii, looking at holding the government accountable, keeping the transparency in government.
A lot of times, officials try to hide behind this legalese and mumbo jumbo. And so, we’re really trying to break it down for the individual that just wants to know what’s happening in government.
And so, you know, looking at ways to also get government out of the way. There’s so many businesses and folks that face government restrictions and regulations all too often. And, you know, it’s our job to be there and stand up for the little guy.
Hamada: Nani Medeiros. Who is Nani Medeiros, and why is this newsworthy?
Kefalas: Yeah. So, you know, a lot of people saw Nani Medeiros. She is the state — or was — the state chief housing officer, and she recently resigned yesterday.
And that’s big news because obviously, the state is facing a housing shortage, and she was appointed to help, you know, try to mitigate that, try to find solutions to that and get everybody together. Unfortunately, she was — chose to resign after some pressure from outside groups and people.
And it’s really sad because she was somebody that was really committed to trying to address this housing crisis. You know, it goes to show you though how difficult it is to get things done in government. You know, that being said, I think Nani made some real momentum for us, and it’s up to us to carry the torch for her.
You know, I watched that most recent Build Beyond Barriers Working Group, and like I said, it was clear that there was anger in the community. And I do think there’s justifiable concern when you’re talking about this emergency proclamation and the governor overstepping his bounds.
Again, Grassroot Institute is committed to looking for transparency and holding the government accountable. But I do want to be crystal clear, you know: This emergency proclamation was something that — it was, you know, created from years of inaction from our state and county elected officials.
So, you know, we can’t continue to do nothing and expect the problem to just go away. You know, meanwhile, our families, our neighbors and our communities are really dissolving, and they’re moving to the mainland. Why is that? Because our housing is so expensive.
So, you know, a lot of it has to do with these exclusionary zoning laws that are, you know, actually pretty racist in their origin, and they’re explicitly designed to make housing unaffordable for the working class. These are things like single-family zoning, minimum lot sizing, minimum parking requirements and ADU [accessory dwelling unit] limits.
You know, I know everybody wants to have a big green yard with a nice white picket fence, but it isn’t the reality for so many people in Hawaii. I think we really need to get rid of some of these restrictions and allow people to be able to build homes here more easily.
You know, the problem is only going to get worse in the wake of these Lahaina fires. We have so many people that are now displaced. They don’t have their homes; they don’t have their jobs. So, we really need action now.
Hamada: So, there was action with the emergency proclamation. There are concerns about seizure of land, acquisition of land, categorization of land that will fall under the auspices of the state.
I know that there is a lot of legalese we don’t have time to get into. So, that’s some of the reactionary positions that people are taking.
But to get a little more beyond Lahaina — previous to [that] — [there was a] $600 million-plus allocation for [the Department of] Hawaiian Home Lands, et cetera. Kali Watson, new director — previous and now new — is looking for expansion and even more quote-unquote “investment.”
Question: Where the hell is the money going?
Kefalas: Yeah, that is a good question, and I think we see this all too often with government projects, right? We see it with the rail, we saw it now with the Hawaiian Home Lands project.
And, you know, that is why at Grassroot Institute, we are big proponents of the private sector doing a lot of these projects and taking on a lot of the risks so that the taxpayers aren’t paying for it.
Unfortunately, Hawaii is the second highest tax burden state in the country, and a lot of that is left paying for pet projects that we see from politicians every year.
So, you know, you mentioned the emergency proclamation — I don’t want there to be an emergency proclamation. I want the counties to take the lead and change a lot of these housing laws for good and make a permanent change.
But that being said, you know, I’m glad that the governor and his administration are kind of singing the same tune that we’ve been singing for years. You know, the proclamation connects the dots between overregulation and high housing prices.
So, you know, we at least are hopeful that this can jumpstart really the private sector in developing homes and just increasing our supply.
Hamada: But that, under his proclamation — is there, isn’t it unilateral that it has to be led by the state because they’re the ones that are bypassing permitting and other regulations?
If a private developer says, “I want to help, I want to build some affordable housing,” are they afforded the very same that the state realizes in their projects?
Kefalas: Well, you can now apply to this Beyond — or Build Beyond Barriers Working Group — and they can approve the project. Now, I think with Nani’s resignation, there’s a lot that gets thrown into limbo and seeing who gets appointed next.
But it, you know, private developers are encouraged to apply to this and really try to cut through a lot of the red tape. Because it’s one of the things that we hear all too often is a developer has to go from this agency to this agency to this agency. And it takes, you know, 10 years by the time they’re finally through the process.
Well, this Beyond — Build Beyond Barriers, sorry, it’s BBB — group, you know, they are really getting everybody together in one room, trying to get the approval in one shot. Let’s, you know, get this thing passed.
You know, if you watched the meeting — unfortunately [in] the most recent meeting, they didn’t approve anything yet. So, we’re still waiting on that.
And unfortunately, Nani’s resignation, again, may throw a wrench into things. But we’re hopeful that, you know, that is something that can jumpstart development and really, like I said, increase supply.
Because we want to — you know, we all too often talk about stopping demand and getting rid of foreign investors and short-term rentals, but really, we need to increase the supply.
Hamada: 8:27. Last question, and that pertains to the Council on Revenues. What do you portend for COR and what our condition is here at home?
Kefalas: Yeah, so Council on Revenues met yesterday. And for those that don’t know, the council prepares estimates to the state government each fiscal year, and they meet about four times a year — so, each quarter.
The governor — Gov. Green — was actually there, and he made some remarks to begin the meeting. It was kind of interesting: He said he may waive the TAT [Transient Accommodations Tax] for people that are offering rentals to people that were displaced Maui residents, and also potentially FEMA and other response personnel — that part was a little unclear.
But, you know, in addition, the governor expressed his desire to reopen West Maui in October, and that’s big news. So, I believe he mentioned that his preference would be to reopen West Maui to kamaaina early October, and then potentially have other visitors late November and December. But we’ll see if that date changes.
You know, one thing that was really kind of an interesting tidbit: Gov. Green said the U.S. Department of Energy is coming to Hawaii soon, and he thinks we may be approved for a hydrogen hub. That could be, you know, several billion dollars — I think they asked for about $2.1 billion from the federal government.
And, you know, that’s exciting because it has the potential to limit some of the price volatility that we see and reduce energy costs as the state makes this controversial turn to 100% renewable energy.
But back to your question — overall, tax revenues were down actually 1.4%. And I do want to note that that’s actually from before the fire. A lot of those taxes were collected from businesses in July. So we won’t know exactly, you know, what the effects were and how much the state lost from fire-related tourism drop for a little while now.
But looking at the U.S. economy as a whole, Carl Bonham — he is an economist from UHERO [University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization] — he said they do not expect the country to enter into a recession.
So, for the past year, everybody’s been suggesting that we would see one in 2024. But luckily, the good news is, you know, not necessarily an economic boom, but it doesn’t look like we’re going to go through a recession.
Hamada: Well, we could do another half hour on that in definition of term and what reality is. But, that said, we’re already at 8:30 in the morning.
Final — in 20 seconds, explain once again the significance of the Council on Revenues with the budgetary forecast and how it affects state budgeting.
Kefalas: Yeah. So, the Council on Revenues, like I said, they estimate how much the state is projected to bring in. And a lot of times, legislators and the governor base their budgets and projections on what the Council on Revenues is saying and what they project out.
So, you know, kind of, these meetings are important to understand what they foresee and what they forecast. And a lot of times, our elected officials are looking to them as to the guiding light in a lot of these policy decisions.
Hamada: Well, that’s actually constitutional that they must adhere, so …
Hamada: Very profound. Once again, Ted, thank you so very much.
Congratulations on the game last night. And don’t do that when we play — if the Lions come back and destroy our [Chicago] Bears — brother, that’s a …
Kefalas: You may not have a guest that week, I understand.
Hamada: I was going to say — well, I’ll be taking the week off. So, there we go.
Ted, thanks so very much.
Kefalas: Yeah, thank you, Rick. Appreciate it.