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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, March 18, 2007

850 rally for Kukui Gardens

By Will Hoover
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hundreds gather at the Co-Cathedral of St. Theresa to help save Kukui Gardens' low-income housing.

FACE photo

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The cheers, commotion, and high-decibel vocalizing that blew the roof off the Co-Cathedral of St. Theresa in Kalihi yesterday had nothing to do with St. Patrick's Day.

It was an "Accountability Assembly" that excited the estimated 850 folks who squeezed into every inch of available pew-and-floor space.

"Our major function often turns out to be holding the feet of our elected officials and servants of the public to the fire," said Mike Young, pastor at First Unitarian Church of Honolulu, and a charter member of FACE (Faith Action for Community Equity), which sponsored the rally.

"We've reached the place where it appears that Hawai'i is only for the very rich and the occasional tourist."

At issue was the continuing struggle to maintain low-cost housing in Hawai'i. A focus of that struggle has been Kukui Gardens, an 857-unit, low-income apartment complex on the edge of Chinatown that was built in 1970.

Residents, many of them elderly, feared they might become displaced or even homeless tent dwellers when the nonprofit complex owner nearly sold the place last year.

Since then Gov. Linda Lingle has weighed in on the side of the residents, and a compromise deal has been brokered that would preserve half the property for affordability and half for mixed-use residential, retail and office complex.

But that deal is contingent on the tenants coaxing $55 million out of state financing coffers. The outcome remains iffy.

Thus, yesterday, public servants felt the heat on their feet a burning in their soles. Before Speaker of the House Calvin Say could say a word at the podium, FACE vice president Sam Domingo called out an inquiry:

"Mr. Speaker, we have a question to ask before you address us and we know that certainly this will be a confirmation," Domingo yelled. "Will you continue to work with us to ensure that the Kukui Gardens housing complex remains affordable?"

"YES!" screamed the usually subdued Say, in what may have been the outburst of his career.

The crowd went wild.

Say described the potential sale of Kukui Gardens as a "major crisis," and said when the Legislature learned about the buyout last year, lawmakers took measures to prevent it.

Say promised the Legislature would follow through on a bill it passed allowing the governor to use condemnation powers to acquire ownership of Kukui Gardens for the state.

NOT SETTLING FOR HALF

City Councilman Rod Tam, who heads the affordable housing committee, went Say one better, saying he would not be satisfied with half the Kukui Gardens property being used for affordability but would insist on 100 percent affordability so that not one resident would be displaced.

His remarks were received with robust enthusiasm.

Speaking on behalf of the governor, Orlando "Dan" Davidson, executive director of the Hawai'i Housing Finance and Development Corp., expressed "the governor's unwavering commitment to preserve the long-term affordability of Kukui Gardens; we will do everything we can to make that happen."

As the meeting wound down, FACE vice president Domingo beamed with satisfaction.

Just to make sure the message got through, he paraphrased the immortal line a mean-spirited prison boss uttered to convict Lucas Jackson in the Academy Award-winning 1967 Paul Newman film, "Cool Hand Luke" "What we have here is a failure to communicate."

"Well let me be clear today that what we have done," shouted Domingo to the cathedral rafters, "is to make sure that we will NOT have a failure to communicate."

Reach Will Hoover at whoover@honoluluadvertiser.com.