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Affordable housing project for older residents divides Mānoa community

Manoa banyan court eis project
Krista Rados
/
HPR
Signs have reappeared at the intersection of Mānoa and East Mānoa roads as residents continue to protest the affordable housing project.

Monday was the final day for residents to comment on a draft assessment for a controversial Oʻahu affordable housing project. Mānoa Banyan Court would provide affordable rentals for older residents, but some community members have concerns.

The Mānoa Chinese Cemetery has stood in the heart of Mānoa Valley for more than 170 years. However, the cemetery is facing an uncertain future.

The nonprofit Lin Yee Chung Association owns and maintains the 27-acre property the cemetery is on. Over the years, maintaining the cemetery has proven difficult for the association, which is financially struggling.

"We do not have a perpetual care fund, and we need a way to maintain the cemetery in perpetuity," said Charles Wong, president of the association. "Numerous cemeteries have gone bankrupt. There's about 80 cemeteries on the island of Oʻahu, and only about 15 of them have perpetual Care Trust Funds."

Currently, 16 acres of property are being used for the cemetery. However, state law prevents the association from using the remaining 11 undeveloped acres as a cemetery — due to the property being bifurcated by Woodlawn Ditch, which feeds into streams when raining.

With the cemetery's future at stake, the association decided the land could be used for affordable rental housing for a growing segment of Hawaiʻi's population.

"There's a very large demographic shift in the country. Right now, it's the aging baby boomer population, which is reaching retirement age. In the last 40 years, 80% of Americans have seen no real wage growth. So the middle class has been decimated," said Wong. "Without elderly affordable housing, many of the elderly face the risk of homelessness."

Plans are underway to build Mānoa Banyan Court, a 288-unit affordable rental project for older residents. It consists of four buildings with adjacent parking lots on a portion of the 27-acre property. The one-bedroom units would range between $700 and $1,300 a month with utilities included, based on a person's income, according to Wong.

That's significantly lower than the average rental price in Mānoa. According to real estate company Locations, the median rental price for a single-family home was $3,900 last year. The median sales price for a home in the area was $1.6 million — about $500,000 more than the Oʻahu median price.

The project would help older residents with incomes ranging between 30% area median income and 60% area median income — $27,000 to $55,000 a year.

But nearby residents have expressed their concerns and opposition to the project.

manoa cemetery
Krista Rados
/
HPR
Cemeteries in Mānoa remain a key feature of the valley's history. The proposed 11 acres of Mānoa Banyan Court, not currently occupied by the cemetery but sitting right beside it, would be transformed into affordable housing if approved.

Infrastructure, traffic and flooding

"It does seem to be a large development that's happening right here," said Dinesh Rao.

Rao lives on Lower Road, on the backside of the cemetery near the project site. Lower Road is a small, dead-end lane lined with residential homes. Rao told HPR the road is so small, the city's recycling program doesn't serve the street, because the trucks aren't able to fit.

"There's not a lot of traffic on this road. It's just the people who live here, who traverse this road," Rao said. "But with these nearly 300 units that are going to be built down the street, Lower Road is the primary ingress and egress for a portion of it — that'll probably quadruple the traffic on this street."

The draft environmental assessment concludes there won't be any major change in traffic. The parking lot would accommodate roughly 200 vehicles.

Rao and other Mānoa residents told HPR there are also environmental concerns — mainly with rain runoff and potential flooding. Today, the project site is undeveloped green space, allowing the ground to absorb rain. However, residents are concerned future heavy rain events will add to the rain runoff, which will be channeled by the Woodlawn Ditch into the surrounding neighborhood.

"There's parking lots and buildings that are going to be constructed or impermeable to rain," said Rao. "That rain is going to run off somewhere, and it's going to be diverted into the Woodlawn drainage. From there it's going to be diverted into Mānoa stream, which has flooded in the past."

manoa banyard court affordable housing
Krista Rados
/
HPR
Members of the community oppose the large project, showing their concerns by putting up large banners on their property.

Some residents believe the draft environmental assessment is too narrow in focus, and doesn't take into account the broader impact the development has on the nearby community. Neighbors have called for an environmental impact statement to be conducted, which would mean more research, community outreach, and investigating broader impacts.

There are also complaints regarding the state program that funds affordable housing projects — known as 201H.

"For them, the complaint is the state just went ahead and made a way for developers to just say, 'Okay, let's build a skyscraper right here, in the middle of some lush garden where nobody else was allowed to do it. But here, let's do it for these guys. We'll make a mint,'" said Kama Hopkins, chair of the Mānoa Neighborhood Board.

Hopkins told HPR that neighborhood board meetings have been contentious, with passionate debate. While he remains neutral on the project, saying he wants the process to run its course and have expert reports, Hopkins said the issue is complex and nuanced.

"Mānoa is another town, just like other places where you struggle, people struggle, and we want to really help them get out of that rut that they're in," said Hopkins.

"Is the project too big? I don't know. I'm going to let the experts tell me if it's too big... But when [the utilities] went in to talk about water and this kind stuff, they were told that [288] is about how much it can handle. Now, just because you can do something, does that mean you should do something? That's debatable," Hopkins said.

Residents have criticized Wong for not addressing or downplaying the community's concerns. But Wong said the draft environmental assessment contains expert reports from some of the best engineering firms in Honolulu. Those reports address several concerns and highlight the project scope and its impacts.

Hopkins and Wong said there's been some misinformation spread through the community regarding the project. Particularly with the property's zoning, and fake mock-ups of the project.

manoa  banyard court opposition sign
Krista Rados
/
HPR
Signs stating, "Save Mānoa Valley" and "Keep Mānoa Mānoa" have begun to appear in the community over the last month amidst the approaching comment period, which ends Jan. 23, 2023.

Going forward

Honolulu's Department of Planning and Permitting suggests there will be a finding of no significant impact from the project. The comment period for the draft environmental assessment ended Monday, but that isn't the end of the process for this project.

The developer, association and city reviewer will have to respond to all the comments from the draft assessment, and address concerns. After, the assessment will be finalized and will enter the next phase in the process, such as acquiring permits.

Wong told HPR he plans to seek help from the city to fund the project through the state's 201H program. That will require additional hearings and meetings with the city's planning commission and the City Council.

A copy of the draft environmental assessment is available online and at the Mānoa Public Library.

However, the tension between neighbors and the association's president runs high. Wong believes opponents are NIMBYs, Not In My Back Yard advocates, who aren't thinking of the broader social need for affordable rentals — or the dire situation the cemetery is in.

"For me, protecting and preserving Mānoa also includes protecting and preserving the Mānoa Chinese Cemetery, which is part of the historical and cultural fabric of Mānoa Valley for more than 170 years," Wong said.

Meanwhile, residents such as Rao told HPR they aren't criticizing or questioning the need for affordable housing. But they're concerned about the broader environmental impacts of the development — mainly future "rain bomb" events caused by the effects of climate change.

"Regardless of what happens, I hope our community can still come together, sit down and have a meal with one another," Hopkins said.

Casey Harlow is an HPR reporter and occasionally fills in as local host of Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Contact him at charlow@hawaiipublicradio.org or on Twitter (@CaseyHarlow).
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