Manoa community split over plan for senior affordable rentals

Jan. 8—"The real reason why and what nobody really wants to say is prejudice against poor people, " said Charles Wong, president of the Lin Yee Chung Association, who noted the surrounding neighborhood boasts large residential lots.

Vocal opponents of a proposed 288-unit affordable rental project for seniors to be built on the edge of the nearly 190-year-old Manoa Chinese Cemetery in upper Manoa Valley have surfaced at recent community meetings and even launched an online petition that has collected more than 4, 200 signatures to thwart the development within the affluent neighborhood in urban Honolulu.

They argue that the $100 million Manoa Banyan Court project would be a possible detriment to an existing low-density, single-­family home neighborhood ; contribute to parking, traffic and flooding concerns ; and destroy an area of forested land.

Charles Wong, president of the Lin Yee Chung Association, which owns and operates the Manoa Chinese Cemetery at 3430 E. Manoa Road, says his group is planning the rental project on a 9.5-acre parcel of heavily overgrown land between East Manoa and Lower roads that the association has owned for over a century.

Besides offering affordable rentals to seniors, Wong said Manoa Banyan Court would provide the association with much-needed income to help maintain and support the cemetery as a historical and cultural landmark. He rejected public pushback that is based on purported concerns about parking, flooding, traffic or preservation of forested land.

"The real reason why and what nobody really wants to say is prejudice against poor people, " Wong said, noting the surrounding neighborhood boasts large residential lots, some 10, 000 square feet in size. "Whenever you try to put an elderly, affordable housing project into an affluent neighborhood it becomes brutal. It's just vicious. Because the rich people don't want to live next to the poor people."

Wong asserts that the parcel, which is dotted with massive, century-old banyan trees amid invasive weeds and other vegetation, cannot be used to expand the 16-acre cemetery due in part to the presence of a downhill-running tributary of Manoa Stream.

"Woodlawn Ditch bifurcates the site—it runs through the middle—and body burials are not allowed within 200 feet of bodies of water to prevent contamination of the groundwater from embalming fluids like formaldehyde, " he said.

But Wong believes that the vacant parcel is large enough for another use that is sorely needed on Oahu.

"It's about building more affordable housing for the elderly and income-restricted retirees who cannot afford the high cost of living in Hawaii, " he said. "It's about taking care of kupuna who might otherwise go homeless."

Opponents of Manoa Banyan Court cite aspects of the project as being unsuitable for upper Manoa Valley. According to city documents, the rental project would comprise four three-story buildings with 288 one-­bedroom units that would be rented to people 62 years and older who are earning 60 % of the area median income and less for a period of 65 years.

Plans include 185 parking stalls, a 1.5-acre community garden and commercial space for meeting halls, classrooms, offices and a cafe.

The project site, currently zoned preservation, contains heavy vegetation and large trees with a few small structures. The commercial area, city reports note, would be built on land currently zoned residential.

DURING A virtual Manoa Neighborhood Board meeting Wednesday, the panel voted 11-2 to approve a resolution opposing Manoa Banyan Court.

In part, the board based its decision on many of the concerns raised by residents at three prior board meetings last year and scores of written testimony from Manoa residents, as well as comments made during a well-attended town hall meeting in April organized by Honolulu City Council member Calvin Say, who represents Manoa.

The city Department of Planning and Permitting is reviewing the project's environmental assessment, and the state Office of Planning and Sustainable Development released a on Manoa Banyan Court Dec. 23. Both agencies are accepting comments through Jan. 23.

Manoa residents testifying at Wednesday's neighborhood board meeting included former state Department of Health Director Bruce Anderson, who said the project was much too large for the site.

"It's not a small project, " Anderson said, adding its large size and scope would disrupt the walks he enjoys taking next to the forested parcel in question. "It will impact many in the area."

Fellow resident and noted attorney Brook Hart said affordable housing for older adults is not a reason to fight this particular project. "We are not against housing for people who want to age in place, but we are against those who want to destroy the beauty of our valley, " he said.

Similarly, Lower Road resident Hubert Minn—who cited concerns about water runoff from the development and too many cars clogging up what is already a narrow road—said he was not against affordable housing projects either, "but you need to put them in the right place."

In an email to the Manoa Neighborhood Board, Nani Medeiros, the state's new chief housing coordinator who was appointed by newly elected Gov. Josh Green to promote more affordable housing, asked that the panel delay its vote so the project's environmental review process could take its normal course.

In the end, the board approved the resolution and renewed its opposition to the project, with Chairman Kama Hopkins on the losing end of the vote.

"I voted 'no' because I believe in allowing our government agencies the time they need to do their respective jobs pertaining to this submittal, " Hopkins told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser in an email. "We do not have their reports yet."

Saying he doesn't have a personal opinion on the project, Hopkins added he does support affordable housing.

"We need it, especially on Oahu, " he said. "As was evident, not all projects are supported by the community members and it is their right to speak up and voice their opinions. Many remarked they are in favor of affordable housing, but perhaps not this project. Many did the same when Manoa Gardens Elderly Housing was being proposed years ago. In fact, I was reminded by a Manoa resident that the Chinese cemetery was suggested as an alternate site back then by opponents of the Manoa Gardens Elderly Housing project."

ACCORDING TO the Lin Yee Chung Association, the cemetery, built on a knoll, saw burials as far back as 1835. The association itself formally began in 1851 and since that time has maintained the traditional Chinese cemetery.

Wong said the nearly filled-to-capacity cemetery has experienced dwindling demand for burials, now down to about 10 per year.

"Why the association and its board have decided to do this project is because the cemetery and the association will go bankrupt in the not-too-distant future, maybe in about five years, " he said.

The cemetery has an operating budget of $17, 000 per month but has nearly run out of burial plots to sell, which net about $10, 000 per plot, according to Wong. He said the cost of maintaining the cemetery "is more than our income ... so we have negative cash flow."

To continue to support the cemetery, Wong said the proposed affordable housing project could generate about $10, 000 a month in rental income per each of the four phases. "And that is not easy to do, it's actually difficult to do, but that's what our hope is, " he said.

The project would use tax credits and long-term, low-interest loans toward construction, according to Wong.

He said 80 % of the project would be for older adult renters who earn 60 % of the area median income, or about $54, 000 a year, while 10 % would be for those earning 50 % of the median income, or about $43, 000 a year.

"The remaining 10 % of the project will be dedicated to the 30 % area median income (residents ), which is $27, 000 a year, " Wong said. "Only about 10 % of the project is for low-income to very-low income."

He added that the Manoa Banyan Court project and the potential uses for the association's undeveloped land fall in line with city and statewide efforts to create more affordable housing for older adult renters and others.

"It's just a derelict, underutilized and wasted piece of land otherwise, " Wong said.