Public-housing repairs falling farther behind
By Mary Vorsino
Advertiser Urban Honolulu Writer
By Mary Vorsino
In her 14th-floor apartment at Kuhio Park Terrace, Jocelle Kon was gasping for breath.
On the ground floor, responding paramedics were stopped by two broken resident elevators. A freight elevator, manned by a security guard, was on an upper floor. Finally, after waiting at least 10 minutes, the paramedics took the stairs.
"It was very dangerous," said Kon, a 23-year-old mother of four who suffers from life-threatening asthma attacks. She said paramedics had to wait 20 more minutes for the freight elevator when taking her to an ambulance.
"There was nothing they could do," she said.
For public housing tenants and advocates, the incident underscores the dangers that can be tied to widespread disrepair in affordable complexes statewide. From Kalihi to Kailua, Kona, public housing residents are reporting persistent maintenance problems, from leaky sewer and water pipes to loose railings on catwalks and crumbling sidewalks.
There is no complex-by-complex accounting of the concerns — a point of contention for residents — but a 2002 report for the state estimated the backlog for repairs at public housing buildings at $600 million. "It's grown since," said Pam Dodson, executive assistant to the interim director of the Hawai'i Public Housing Agency.
Meanwhile, spending on maintenance at public housing projects dropped by about $2 million between fiscal years 2005 and 2006.
In fiscal year 2006, which ended on June 30, the housing agency spent $8.7 million in federal money on materials and contracts for repairs. A year earlier, the agency spent $10.6 million. State officials do not yet have an accounting of what they plan to spend on maintenance this year, but said no large-scale projects were on tap.
And it's still unclear whether $10 million in state money appropriated in the last legislative session will go to the housing agency, as first promised, because the law was ambiguous as to how the money should be used.
Housing officials acknowledge a growing backlog of needed repairs, but point out they are not alone. Nationwide, federally funded housing sites are aging, costs are rising and budgets are shrinking.
"Our projects are old," said Patti Miyamoto, the housing authority's interim director. She added many of Hawai'i's housing complexes were built in the 1950s, '60s and '70s. "Just the costs today make it very difficult."
The city, also feeling the pinch of higher costs and backlogged maintenance at affordable-housing complexes, is considering selling off its 12 properties to a private entity.
There is between $10 million and $15 million in deferred maintenance at the 12 city-owned affordable housing properties, city spokesman Bill Brennan said. Jeff Coelho, city Customer Services Department director, has said the city will have to step up maintenance work if it does not sell the properties.
FEWER ARE FAILING
The number of housing complexes that failed annual federal inspections decreased between 2004 and 2005, which partly contributed to the agency shedding its "troubled" status. The federal label meant the agency was in danger of a federal takeover.
Last year, 11 public housing complexes in the Islands failed physical property inspections, scoring 59 or lower out of a possible 100 points. Eight complexes scored just above failing, in the low- to mid-60s. The reviews are based on the condition of the building at the property and its units.
A year earlier, 26 failed — a sharp jump from 2003 and 2002, when seven and eight housing complexes failed, respectively. Michael Flores, director of public housing in Hawai'i at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, would not comment yesterday on the maintenance issues.
The years of backlogged repairs at Hawai'i housing complexes have led to more calls by the state Resident Advisory Board, which represents the 12,600 residents in public housing, for the state to address the issue.
"It's the broken window theory," said David Yaw, longtime chairman of the resident board, alluding to the idea that a community in shambles attracts criminal elements. "As long as these communities are in the state they're in, you'll never move people away from ... poverty."
Nita Machado, a resident at Mayor Wright Homes, said some of the maintenance problems she sees on a daily basis pose health concerns. For example, she said, sewage pipes often break near walkways and cleanup isn't always thorough. "My neighbors and I pretty much spaz out when we see a child walking barefoot on the walkways," she said. "It's unsanitary."
She said there's also plenty of chipping paint, uneven sidewalks, pothole-ridden parking lots and leaky roofs at the 363-unit, low-rise complex.
LONG LINES, LONG WAIT
At Kuhio Park Terrace, when the two resident elevators in each high rise are broken, the line for the only working freight elevator in each building is often long and slow moving. The freight elevator must be operated by security guards, and the only way to request the elevator from an upper floor is to telephone security.
Sometimes, residents say, no one answers.
Resident Leacial Tanielu said one afternoon about eight months ago, she waited for two hours on the ground floor of one of the high-rises to use the freight elevator. The 27-year-old was pregnant and too scared to shove her way past others into the hot elevator. After seeing no end to the lines of people waiting, Tanielu slowly started making her way up the stairs.
It took her 30 minutes to get to the ninth floor. She rested on each landing, trying to ignore the sickening smells of urine and rotten food in the stairwell.
Tanielu, who has five children and has lived at Kuhio Park Terrace for three years, is often left taking the stairs these days, too, with groceries in hand and a child in a stroller. Last week, Tanielu sat on a stoop outside the complex with her infant. Nearby, a guard manned the freight elevator. The resident elevators, she said, have been down for weeks.
Robert Faleafine, manager of Kuhio Park Terrace, disputed the account. He said one elevator had gone down only a few days earlier. A second had been broken longer, he added. Both were last upgraded in the 1980s.
He also said the freight elevator is always manned.
And when ambulances or fire trucks come onto the premises, he added, security is alerted so they can operate the elevator.
But when Kon had her asthma episode about 20 months ago, security failed to move into action, she said. And a few months later, Kon said, a neighbor and friend on the 11th floor gave birth in her apartment because paramedics couldn't get her down the elevator fast enough.
Dodson, of the housing authority, said the state is working to get a contract for regular maintenance to the elevators at Kuhio Park Terrace. Work now can only be done on the elevators if they malfunction.
Residents say they have long complained about the problem, but have seen no results.
Virginia Esera, who has lived at the complex for six years, said she also has had to take the stairs with a stroller, children and groceries when the elevators are down. "It's terrible, especially if you have kids," she said. "Everybody in this community has been complaining. Nobody does anything."
Reach Mary Vorsino at firstname.lastname@example.org.