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

Reluctant turnovers defeat housing's goal

 •  Hawaii plan tackles public housing crisis

By Mary Vorsino
Advertiser Urban Honolulu Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Laboy Manuel, 78, and Juanita Almeida, 69, are seen at home in Palolo Valley Homes. Almeida, whose ailments limit her mobility, says public housing "is our only way of survival."

Photos by JOAQUIN SIOPACK | The Honolulu Advertiser

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A HISTORY OF PUBLIC HOUSING IN HAWAI'I

1935: Hawai'i Housing Authority created. Its major mission was "replacing slums with safe, clean and decent low-income rental housing."

1937: U.S. Housing Administration was created to provide housing for low-income families as well as construction jobs to boost the lagging economy.

1940: First federal housing project built on O'ahu. Kamehameha Homes, which was demolished and rebuilt in 1997, had 221 units.

1950s: A slew of public housing projects are built in the Islands, after a lull during World War II. The 1950s gave birth to some of the largest public housing projects in the Islands, including Kuhio Homes, Puahala Homes, Mayor Wright Homes and Palolo Valley Homes.

1960s: First signs of maintenance backlogs appear at public housing projects built in the 1940s. The situation led to the 1969 Housing Act, which capped public housing rents at 25 percent of income (30 percent since 1981) and provided for operating subsidies to housing authorities to help cover costs.

1973: Nixon administration imposes a funding freeze on most federal housing programs, kickstarting a shift in national housing policy from building housing to providing Section 8 rental vouchers.

1981: Carter administration officially ends public housing construction.

1980s-90s: With no federal funding to build public housing, states take up the slack. In Hawai'i, several housing projects were built during this period, including those set aside for the elderly.

1991: State auditor issues scathing critique on maintenance and repairs at public housing projects statewide, saying many developments have serious maintenance concerns and pointing to a lack of preventative maintenance at projects on all islands.

2000: State unveils plan to tear down Mayor Wright Homes, and a year later proposes to do the same with Kuhio Park Terrace, using HOPE IV federal grants to rebuild mixed-income communities in their place. The funding never came through, however.

2000s: Amid mounting backlogs and frequent leadership changes, public housing in the Islands suffers. In 2004, the Housing and Community Development Corporation of Hawai'i (later called Hawai'i Public Housing Authority) is labeled "troubled" and is in danger of a federal takeover.

2003: Survey of public housing projects shows widescale maintenance needs. A 30-year estimate put the total repair needs at $650 million at federal projects alone.

2006: HCDCH splits into two agencies one to handle public housing, another to handle affordable housing financing projects.

2008: "Turnaround plan" kicked off to address longstanding concerns at public housing projects, from more than 500 vacant units to a growing waiting list.

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Gloria Davis looks out of the window in her Palolo Valley Homes unit. She has lived most of her life in public housing.

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Public housing was designed in the 1930s as a stopgap for families facing homelessness or living in overcrowded, substandard conditions. It was supposed to help them move up then they were supposed to move out.

But high prices in the housing market, stagnant wages and the appeals of public housing (chief among them, very low rent) means many families aren't moving on, even if they're able. And that's concerning Hawai'i housing advocates, who point out that if fewer families move out, fewer can move in.

"Public housing should be housing for people down on their luck," said Lowell Kalapa, president of two nonprofit housing corporations as well as the Tax Foundation of Hawaii. "I come from a philosophy that we need to empower these people so that they can move into market housing. Right now, I don't see any real effort to do that."

Juanita Almeida, who has lived in public housing for 45 years, agrees that more should be done to help families move out on their own. Almeida, who suffers from a disability, said there are a number of households she knows of that could probably afford a place on the private market without much help.

"They take advantage" of the public housing system, she said.

But she also said there are plenty of people, including the disabled and the elderly, for whom public housing is the only option.

Though the Hawai'i Public Housing Authority does not track how many families move out of projects each year to permanent housing or how many are financially able to do so, it does keep one telling statistic: More than one-third of the 4,625 families who live in federal public housing projects have been there for a decade or more.

Of those, about 27 percent have lived in public housing for between 10 and 20 years the highest percentage in the nation, according to figures reported to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development from March to July 2008.

Meanwhile, about 8 percent have lived in public housing for 20 years or more.

By comparison, about 14 percent of public housing families nationally stayed in projects for between 10 and 20 years. And 6 percent lived in public housing for longer than 20 years, according to figures that exclude the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.

Hawai'i public housing officials and advocates are trying to figure out why families are staying so long in the projects and what can be done to move more people into the private market quicker, partly in hopes of whittling down the waiting list some 8,000 people long to get into Hawai'i public housing.

"I see this as a tremendous challenge," said Hawai'i housing authority Board Chairman Travis Thompson, who added it will take more help from nonprofits to move people out.

LITTLE INCENTIVE

Though some nonprofits have programs at public housing projects that touch on economic self-sufficiency, workforce training or financial planning, there is no systemwide approach to urging residents to think about moving out and no requirements that they have to: Families moving into federal public housing must meet income limits, but once they're in they can stay, often regardless of what they earn, officials say.

The policy is meant to mix incomes in public housing projects, and not penalize families who are earning more. But it has backfired in some Mainland public housing communities, where some are earning six figures and still not moving on.

There's no indication the situation has reached those proportions in the Islands. Hawai'i public housing residents earn slightly more on average than their Mainland peers, but most are still very poor, data show.

About 84 percent of households in Hawa'i public housing are considered extremely or very low income, earning 50 percent or below of the median income in the Islands, according to HUD. About 6 percent earned 80 percent of the median income or above. Income data was not available for about 10 percent of households in public housing. In 2007, the median household income in Hawai'i was $61,160.

Each year, about 550 new families move into Hawai'i public housing projects a number that has not changed significantly since 2000. In fiscal year 2008, 565 families moved in. In fiscal year 2000, 553 families moved in, state statistics show.

There's no way to tell, advocates point out, how many of those families are inter-generational public housing tenants, or people who grew up in public housing and then got a unit of their own. Officials believe this, too, is a significant problem.

Advocates for the poor say they would expect Hawai'i families to stay longer in public housing than other states, given the state's high cost of housing and living. And they point out there is a critical lack of affordable housing for gap income households, or those earning between 50 and 80 percent of median income.

But they say many families could probably leave on their own, with a little help.

SETTING TIME LIMITS

Nationally, among advocates and housing officials, there has been a realization that more needs to be done to help families move out of public housing, whether by linking people up with rentals, helping them with security deposits or background checks or getting them to the point financially where they're able to live on their own.

Some communities have comprehensive programs that do just that, but they are limited because the federal government does not help pay for those services and already-strapped nonprofits are often more liable to dedicate their resources to households in greater financial straits, not necessarily those with a roof over their heads.

In 1996, HUD kicked off its Moving to Work program, designed to give top-performing housing authorities leeway in limiting the amount of time families stay in public housing. Thirty housing authorities across the country are participating in Moving to Work, with time limits from three to seven years.

Recently, there has been preliminary talk of expanding the program nationwide, setting time limits for stays in public housing just as there are time limits for welfare assistance. But critics say the federal program, which provides incentives to families to help them move out, is a one-size-fits-all solution to a multi-faceted and difficult problem. And they also warn that some Moving to Work housing authorities have done a poor job of making sure households are prepared to move out before their time limit expires, which has led to some families finding themselves homeless shortly after they're sent packing from public housing.

Discussion of expanding the Moving to Work program nationally scares Almeida, who at 69 suffers from a variety of ailments that limit her mobility. She lives with her 46-year-old son, who is also disabled, and says she couldn't afford anything on the private market.

She brings in about $637 a month from Social Security. Her monthly rent at Palolo Valley Homes is $77. "This is our only way of survival," Almeida says, lying in bed, where she is forced to spend much of her time because of her mobility problems.

Almeida says she moved into public housing as a young mother needing help.

She raised three children in the projects, two of whom were able to find housing outside public housing once they got old enough to move out. She said she's glad they were able to afford a place on the private market.

LOOKING FORWARD

Clarissa Hosino, a resident at Kalanihuia housing project and an HPHA board member, said part of the problem is that people get stuck in public housing for a variety of reasons, including because it's inexpensive and moving into the private market requires planning and saving.

But Hosino said she raised seven children in public housing, all of whom moved on to professional jobs and don't live in public housing.

"Just because you live in public housing doesn't mean you cannot look forward to moving out," she said.

Hawai'i Public Housing Authority executive director Chad Taniguchi said more needs to be done locally to make sure families who move into public housing don't assume it's a permanent home.

"Public housing should not be a long-term, final housing solution for most of our residents," he said.

Doran Porter, executive director of the Affordable Housing and Homeless Alliance, said part of the problem could be the lack of hands-on social service. Once people move in, he said, they have no obligation as those in homeless shelters do to participate in programs meant to help them save for the future.

"Public housing should be more transitional in nature," Porter said.

Partners in Care, a statewide coalition of homeless service providers, is focusing on the problems at public housing this year as part of an initiative to target homelessness issues. The group says if more people in public housing are encouraged to move out, more homeless could be helped off the streets.

"One thing that we think will help is to have programs within public housing run by outside agencies. These programs can continue to support these people as they move forward," said Holly Hollowach, chairwoman of Partners in Care. "These people need help ... and support."

Reach Mary Vorsino at mvorsino@honoluluadvertiser.com.

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