Richard Mitchell says he knows how important a roof over your head is, having lived in social housing as a child.

Maui Mayor Richard Bissen on Tuesday appointed Richard Mitchell to head the county’s new, independent Housing Department, a move unanimously approved by the County Council’s Committee on Government Relations, Ethics and Transparency.

There was little talk about it. Members know him well. For the past five years, Mitchell has served as a legislative attorney for the Office of Council Services. He goes by the name Remi, which one member said was an acronym for his qualities: trustworthy, excellent, mentorship and integrity.

Members have spoken to him individually about how he would address the region’s long-standing housing crisis, which has been exacerbated by the displacement of some 12,000 people following the August 8 bushfires.

Bissen said housing in the region is complex, calling it “the most critical challenge we face.” And he said Mitchell is the right person for the job, which pays an annual salary of $147,992 and oversees a budget of about $75 million and 39 employees, some of whom are funded by grants.

Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen (left) has selected Richard Mitchell to lead the new Department of Housing at a time when it is the most critical issue facing the island. (Cammy Clark/Civil Beat/2024)Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen (left) has selected Richard Mitchell to lead the new Department of Housing at a time when it is the most critical issue facing the island. (Cammy Clark/Civil Beat/2024)
Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen, left, selected Richard Mitchell to lead the new Department of Housing at a critical time. A Maui County Council committee unanimously backed the nomination Tuesday. (Cammy Clark/Civil Beat/2024)

Mitchell, who has degrees in law, urban planning and architecture and 30 years of experience in those fields, says he wants to give back to the residents of Maui County.

The 58-year-old also brings a deep understanding of the importance of social housing to this crucial position, which he says “enables individuals and families to stabilize, build wealth and plan for the future.”

Mitchell, the son of immigrant parents from Jamaica and Guyana who arrived in England as teenagers, said he spent his early years in a traditional seven-storey social housing block with no lifts or outside corridors in east London.

After his parents divorced, he moved to Baltimore when he was about 12. There he lived with his mother in government-subsidized housing and received help from public workers, including many teachers, who placed him in programs that contributed to his success.

“That experience is rooted in the fact that as a young man I slowly understood what it meant to be supported by your community, even though I didn’t fully understand it at the time,” he said.

In November 2022, voters overwhelmingly approved an amendment to the county charter to create a separate housing department to address the need for an estimated 10,000 new units to meet the island’s housing needs. To do this, the Department of Housing and Human Concerns, which was led by Lori Tsuhako, was split into two departments. Tsuhako now leads the Department of Human Concerns.

Mitchell’s appointment won’t be official until the full council votes on the resolution, which is expected later this month. However, he has been serving as acting director since the new department launched on July 1.

The department has four divisions: the Administrative Division, the County Programs Division, the Federal Programs Division, and Housing and Community Development. A priority is to fill the many professional vacancies and ensure that each division has the support staff it needs.

Mitchell said the people who voted were asking for change and were looking for “a fresh perspective, a renewed vigor in reimagining the way our provincial government provides and supports the development of safe, stable and affordable housing for its residents.”

He said the department will be innovative, taking into account changes in land use, code changes and new programs such as leasehold programs. The department will also focus on finding and maximizing federal grant opportunities and supporting housing and housing land trusts. And, he said, it will be more transparent about how it allocates affordable housing funds.

In particular, he said the county will aggressively pursue development of homes on county-owned land, one of the biggest building costs on Maui. In June, the median sales price of single-family homes rose to $1.47 million, according to real estate firm Locations Hawaii.

“I can’t change the shipping cost. I can’t change the labor cost. I can’t change the material cost,” Mitchell said, but added that he can change the land cost this way.

But the land still needs to be developed near infrastructure, water, public sewerage and public transportation, which has caused problems for some projects.

Councillor Yuki Lei Sugimura asked if he would consider tiny houses, a project she had been pushing for before the fires broke out almost a year ago.

“I will encourage everyone to watch new programs,” he said.

Mitchell said he also wants to make sure the county identifies and pursues all federal grants for various housing options for which it might be eligible. He said he has a “general sense that there are more opportunities that we haven’t taken advantage of.”

In March, homes were built above the fire zone in Lahaina. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2024)In March, homes were built above the fire zone in Lahaina. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2024)
In March, homes were built above the fire zone in Lahaina. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2024)

In an interview after the committee meeting, he said two experiences have gotten him to where he is today. He is in a unique position because he can understand and fathom most of the nuances of building affordable housing in one of the least affordable places in the country.

While earning his first degree from the Cornell School of Architecture in 1989, he was invited to work with renowned architect Fred Koetter on a redevelopment project in East London.

“That project influenced me a lot, because I didn’t know anything about urban planning. I didn’t know anything about economics. I didn’t know anything about finance. I didn’t know anything about law,” he said.

He discovered that projects are not just built.

“It addresses all the challenging social issues, political issues and financial issues that you can reasonably think of as part of development,” he said.

So he went on to get degrees in law and urban planning, and “I kept dipping my toe into housing organizations, nonprofits or housing organizations, to try to understand this one component. Because I knew it was the cornerstone of a family’s success. It was the cornerstone of a community’s success.”

While attending the University of Michigan, Mitchell spent a summer collecting census data that would be used to make major improvements to impoverished slums in Kingston, Jamaica. He also clerked for the Harlem Legal Aid Society in New York City.

Additionally, he gained economic insight while serving as a commissioner with the King County Housing Authority in Seattle.

“I learned a tremendous amount about a housing authority that is not part of the county government, but a standalone municipal corporation that uses the county’s bond rating to maximize federal funding for both acquiring housing, rehabilitating housing and developing housing,” he said.

Mitchell said that while he hasn’t worked as a builder, “I have enough experience not to get lost in the construction world.”

He explained that while working on the census in Jamaica, he also worked for an architect.

“I would go to the site to make sure that what we drew was actually built and then we would film it to make sure that the property owner had proof of what he paid for,” he said. “You can’t be a good architect if you’re not on the site.”

And fresh out of law school and working in Seattle, he was placed on the team that handled real estate and construction litigation because he understood the jargon there.

He said construction insight will also be useful if a developer wants more money because of a schedule overrun.

Mitchell passed the Hawaii bar in 1995, but after being unable to find a job in the state, he took a job in Seattle. His intended short stint became 27 years after he met his wife and they had three boys.

In 2018, after serving on the board of the UH Manoa School of Architecture, he took the plunge and moved his family to Maui, where his sons all graduated from Maui High School and are now students at the University of Hawaii Manoa.

Mitchell said he knows he has a challenging and time-consuming job ahead of him, but it’s an opportunity he never thought he would have at this stage in his career.

“Coming back and having the opportunity to focus on housing is just great,” he said.

Civil Beat’s Maui County reporting is supported in part by a grant from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.