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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, August 17, 2008

Hawaii plan tackles public housing crisis

 •  Reluctant turnovers defeat housing's goal

By Mary Vorsino
Advertiser Urban Honolulu Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

A building at Mayor Wright Homes in Kalihi-Palama was painted with a mural as part of a festival. Many buildings need repairs.

JEFF WIDENER | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Pita Sala, tenant relations adviser at Kuhio Park Terrace, assesses a contaminated unit from wastewater that backed up into the building.

BRUCE ASATO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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The state' s troubled public housing system has been likened to "a house on fire." Officials have embarked on a plan to get the upper hand on problems that have smoldered for years. But this safety net for thousands is already in peril.

TODAY: Hawai'i's public housing system, its problems and how it got this way

TOMORROW: The effects go far beyond those who live in the projects

TUESDAY: Once the fire is out, what then? A look at possible solutions

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

A Kuhio Park Terrace unit suffers from wastewater backing up into the building, causing flooding and destroying fixtures and appliances.

BRUCE ASATO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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  • Reassign about 55 people to maximize efficiency

  • Create special teams to address vacant units, exterior maintenance, unit inspections, application processing, rent collection and work orders

  • Delegate responsibility of new vacant units and work orders to Asset Management Projects (or office assigned to oversee groupings of public housing complexes depending on region)

  • Close the public housing waiting list for at least a year to concentrate application staff efforts on filling vacant units

  • Accept requests for transfers from residents only when medically necessary

  • Add reasonable charges for renters for late payments, bounced checks, repairs to units, tenant-caused damages and excess utility usage

  • Provide training to managers and staff

  • Ask state Legislature to remedy "structural underfunding" of state family and elderly units by providing base operating and utility subsidies (totaling $2.9 million) that mirror federal operating and utility subsidies

  • Increase number of units occupied across the inventory to 95 percent (from 87 percent)

  • Increase rent collection to 95 percent (from 90 percent)

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    As far back as the early 1970s, lawmakers, advocates and residents were decrying backlogged maintenance, deteriorating buildings and rising crime at public housing projects statewide.

    Today, after years of little action, failed oversight and inadequate funding, the crisis has become increasingly acute, with an estimated $320 million in backlogged capital needs, more than 500 vacant units awaiting repairs and a host of emergency maintenance concerns, from no or intermittent hot water, to sewer lines that back up, to elevators that don't work.

    "If something is reported to them to be repaired," said Petina Rios, a resident at Wahiawa Terrace, "they always give an excuse they don't have money."

    The mounting issues — made more critical given the dearth of affordable housing in the Islands and that some 8,000 people are waiting to get into public housing — threaten to render public housing ineffective as a safety net for families facing homelessness and as a decent place for poor families to work their way out of poverty.

    Calls for a comprehensive approach to tackling problems at the state's 83 public housing developments are not only coming from residents and lawmakers, but from social service providers and community leaders who say projects in the worst shape are poisonous to communities, attracting criminal elements and making community pride a hard thing to muster.

    "I hate to see families in that kind of living condition," said state Sen. Suzanne Chun-Oakland, Human Services and Public Housing Committee chairwoman. "My commitment is to try to get something done. We need to take care of this resource."

    In hopes of addressing the host of problems plaguing public housing, the Hawai'i Public Housing Authority recently embarked on a major "turnaround plan" — unlike anything the agency has attempted in its 73-year history — to clean up the projects, revamp vacant units, and streamline how applications are processed, apartments are filled once emptied and rent is collected.

    The plan, to be a major subject of discussion at a legislative hearing Friday on the state of public housing in the Islands, includes shifting public housing workers into different departments to maximize efficiency, not accepting new applications for public housing for at least a year — though no date for the closure has been set— and setting up teams of employees to address the most severe problems, including exterior maintenance and collecting $1.7 million in late rent.

    The authority is also studying several models from the Mainland for redeveloping projects with the greatest needs, including one model that would require little public funding and is designed to preserve the affordability of public housing units, while adding slightly-below market or market-level rentals. The agency plans to bring in a consultant to study the rehab schemes.

    "We're trying to get to a point where our heads are above water long enough where we begin thinking about the future," said Travis Thompson, Hawai'i Public Housing Authority board chairman. "If your house is on fire, you've got to put that fire out first."


    For policymakers and advocates, the turnaround plan is welcome relief after a years-long drought of optimism that public housing would ever get the major overhaul many believed it needed. But at the same time, nobody appears to be getting their hopes up too high, especially considering that the HPHA board and executive director Chad Taniguchi are trying to revamp public housing while facing a $4 million deficit, a dwindling federal subsidy and a tight state budget.

    Clarissa Hosino, an HPHA board member and resident at the Kalanihuia housing project in Chinatown, said the turnaround plan will only work if public housing tenants let policymakers know that rehabilitating public housing is a priority.

    "I really think it it has a lot to do with the support you have from your residents and from your community," Hosino said. "They need to come out and be ... a voice for the changes they want to see."

    For HPHA, the turnaround plan is the result of more than a year of planning — and studying what other housing authorities do. Taniguchi, who became executive director in May 2007, said the plan is designed to stabilize the housing authority so that it can begin to think about potential models for larger-scale rehabilitation projects. He added he is confident that the plan will make a real difference in how the public housing authority is run and how projects are managed.

    But he acknowledged the housing authority doesn't have a good track record when it comes to fixing long-standing concerns, and said it could take at least another year for people to see real change.

    "It's not going to happen overnight," he said.

    To be sure, this is not the first time the housing authority has tried to revamp the public housing system in the Islands.

    In 1998, for example, then-executive director David Lau wrote in the Hawai'i Housing Authority annual report that he was hopeful about the prospects of a project designed to renovate units and make widescale repairs, foster self-sufficiency with job and life skills training and tamp down crime with a drug elimination program.

    In 2004, after the federal government labeled the Housing and Community Development Corporation of Hawai'i — later renamed Hawai'i Public Housing Authority — a "troubled" public housing agency, a massive action plan was put into place to deal with 120 problem areas, including vacant units, rent collection and building repairs. Though the plan was able to lift the agency out of troubled status after a year, it didn't succeed in eliminating many of the problems it set out to address. If anything, some of those problems have worsened.

    The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development currently lists the authority as a "standard" performer.

    "HPHA understands very well that its primary objective is to provide affordable housing that is decent, safe and sanitary," said Michael Flores, director of the Honolulu HUD office. "That means that HPHA has to focus on the filling of all vacant units and ensuring that all units are in acceptable physical condition."


    Most public housing projects in the Islands are in fair to poor shape, though some are relatively problem-free, officials point out. In federal inspections of projects last year, 11 of the 65 federal housing projects failed, getting a score of 59 or below out of a possible 100, and about one-third received a score of 69 or below.

    Hawai'i's issues with public housing pale compared with some major Mainland cities, which are in the midst of trying to figure out how to deal with rows and rows of crime-ridden, crumbling public housing highrises. But consider: More than 20,000 Hawai'i residents call state or federally subsidized public housing projects home in dozens of communities around the state, making the Hawai'i Public Housing Authority by far the single-largest owner of affordable housing in the state — and landlord for nearly 2 percent of the state's population.

    And though some charge that public housing in the Islands has turned out to be an incredible black hole of resources, advocates counter that building an all-new affordable housing inventory or tackling the problems that would arise if public housing weren't available (including, conceivably, more homelessness) would almost certainly be more costly and less cost-effective.

    Advocates also point out Hawai'i is not alone in struggling with a shrinking purse and a growing list of needs.

    Across the country, public housing authorities are grappling with aging projects whose operations and upkeep increasingly outpace federal and local funding. Every fiscal year since 2003, federal appropriations for public housing operating subsidies have fallen short of projected needs based on federal calculations, the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials reports.

    The gap was 5.3 percent in 2003. By 2007, it had grown to 18.1 percent.

    To make up for the shortfalls, housing authorities are being forced to lay off employees, scale back on services and dip into capital improvement dollars to pay the bills for day-to-day operations.

    Michael Kelly, president of the Council of Large Public Housing Authorities, of which Hawai'i could be, but is not, a member, said the underfunding — or so-called "disinvestment" — is threatening to cripple public housing as the nation knows it.

    "The funding by HUD has not kept up with what the deferred modernization needs are. Consequently, places like the state of Hawai'i are facing a crisis of ... systems that need replacing without the money to do the replacing," said Kelly, who is also executive director of the Washington D.C. Housing Authority.

    This year, the operating and capital budgets for the Hawai'i Public Housing Authority included some $30 million in federal subsidies for operations and $16 million in state funds for capital improvement needs. That money won't go very far in addressing years of backlogged maintenance.

    And the operating budget isn't enough to cover the day-to-day management of public housing projects.

    In fiscal year 2009, the Hawai'i housing authority projects a $4.2 million deficit, and plans to seek an emergency appropriation from lawmakers to make up for the shortfall. The authority has weathered funding deficits since 2004, when it spent $6.3 million more than it had. The largest deficit was $10.3 million in fiscal year 2007.

    Meanwhile, federal subsidies for capital improvements to Hawai'i projects continue to decline.

    In 1998, HPHA got $14.2 million for capital improvements. In 2008, it got $12.6 million, or $1.6 million less than it did a decade ago.

    Taniguchi acknowledged that it will be tough to make headway in improving housing projects in the current financial climate. And he pointed out the crisis is a compounding one, like walking the wrong way on an escalator: For every step forward, there are more than a few steps back — dozens more repairs that need to be made — and those steps add up fast.

    "We haven't been getting the kind of funding" needed to address capital improvement and repairs, Taniguchi said in a recent interview. "As a result, we're behind."


    Couple the funding shortfall with an aging inventory of projects, and the situation becomes critical.

    Some 44 projects — or more than half of all developments in the Islands — are 30 years old or more (nationally, the useful life for a public housing development has been estimated at three decades), and 19 projects were built in 1968 or earlier. The oldest project, Mayor Wright Homes, was completed in October 1952.

    Social service providers say it is a testament to the affordable housing shortage in the Islands that despite all its problems, thousands are still trying to get into public housing. The wait to get into the projects is now seven years or more, depending on the circumstances of the renter — the homeless and others have preferences.

    Tenants pay rents ranging from $26 to more than $1,000 for units that include a stove and a refrigerator and range from studios to five-bedroom apartments. Rents are based on how much a renter earns and are no greater than 30 percent of a household's gross income.

    From July 2007 to June 2008, HPHA took in $18.5 million in rent. That represents only about 42 percent of the total operating budget for public housing. No rent goes to capital improvements.

    Right now, the housing authority has about $320 million in urgent capital needs at its federal and state-owned public housing projects. And over the next 30 years, the projects will need an estimated $1 billion in capital improvement projects, from replacing old sewer lines to fixing structural issues to painting buildings, according to HPHA, which also projected a shortfall for those capital projects through 2038 of $684 million, or more than half of the total.

    At Kuhio Park Terrace in Kalihi alone, the largest and one of the oldest public housing projects in Hawai'i, there are an estimated $67 million in needed capital improvement projects, according to a 2003 assessment, the most recent available.

    The biggest problems today include no hot water during much of the day because of ongoing boiler issues and sewer line overflows in both towers, forcing the closure of some units.

    Also, residents in Building B who moved in after 2002 have been unable to get landline telephone or Internet service because of an issue with the conduit system. HPHA says they are addressing it, and expect to have telephone service available to residents by the end of the year. The other problems are also being targeted in ongoing projects, officials said.

    Mercy Onno, a resident at Kuhio Park Terrace, said the host of maintenance problems has left many in the housing complex, the only federal highrise housing project still standing west of the Rockies, frustrated and mad. And she said many people are afraid to come forward to report repair issues because they are worried if they make a complaint they'll be evicted.

    "What can we do?" said Onno, throwing her hands up in the air.

    On a recent afternoon, Onno sits with fellow KPT residents at the headquarters for Micronesians United on School Street, counting off the big maintenance issues she encounters at the housing project daily, including broken elevators, which the state is in the midst of fixing as part of a multimillion-dollar project to modernize elevators at public housing projects statewide.

    Though they could, Onno and the others don't mention the overflowing trash chutes at KPT, or the damaged walkways or the chipping paint or the failing plumbing system. The 614-unit KPT got just 40 points on a 100-point scale in a HUD inspection last year, the worst of any housing project on the island.

    But Onno and the others aren't complaining about most of the deficiencies found by federal inspectors.

    Not even close.

    They just want a decent place for their families.

    "Tenants are getting the blame, but it is the state's problem," said Sisan Suda, of Micronesians United, whose son lives at Kuhio Park Terrace and who was acting as a translator for the public housing residents. "If you are a landlord, you are required to clean up your units."

    The chronic problems at KPT highlight the continuing crisis of declining budgets and growing needs. But some say they also point to years of failed management, in which repairs were allowed to mount beyond control, vacant units were allowed to stack up and preventive maintenance was allowed to be all but wholly disregarded.

    In 1991, a state audit of public housing found a host of backlogged repairs and a lack of preventive maintenance and called for a systemwide proposal to tackle the problems. Lawmakers hope the new turnaround plan provides that comprehensive approach.

    At the June HPHA board meeting during which the turnaround plan was first presented, Thompson summed up his thoughts for the room:

    "My feeling," he said, "is the only way we can go is up."

    Reach Mary Vorsino at mvorsino@honoluluadvertiser.com.

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