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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Chief brings can-do spirit to agency

 •  Hawaii public housing authority seeks solutions on Mainland

By Mary Vorsino
Advertiser Urban Honolulu Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Chad Taniguchi, executive director of the Hawai'i Public Housing Authority, has earned praise during his first year on the job, and the housing authority board that hired him has been receptive to the changes he has implemented as well as his candid leadership style.

Photos by BRUCE ASATO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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A YEAR HEADING PUBLIC HOUSING

Chad Taniguchi was hired as executive director of the Hawai'i Public Housing Authority just over a year ago.

Here are some of the things he's brought to the job:

  • Worked over the past year to come up with a "turnaround plan" meant to address scores of problems at public housing projects, from vacant units needing repairs to delinquent renters.

  • Has strived for a more open department that includes tenants in decisions. This month and next, the housing authority is holding meetings across the state for residents to learn about the turnaround plan and share their concerns. Taniguchi says he eventually wants to have meetings statewide with residents at least three times a year.

  • Believes in personal responsibility, which is why he is not only pushing tenants to get more involved in housing projects, but instituting charges for late rents and bounced checks and proposing tougher screening procedures for new applicants, including requesting rental histories and credit checks.

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    Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

    Chad Taniguchi, executive director of the Hawai'i Public Housing Authority, rides his bicycle every day from Kailua to his office in Kalihi.

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    Former attorney and Kaua'i housing administrator Chad Taniguchi took over as the head of the troubled Hawai'i Public Housing Authority after the job had been empty for nearly six months.

    His predecessor, Stephanie Aveiro, retired in December 2006, after three difficult years during which the housing agency was sharply criticized by legislators for a rising number of vacant units and other maintenance concerns.

    But Aveiro often noted she had inherited an agency in severe disrepair. Before she stepped in, not one of the executive directors of the Hawai'i Public Housing Authority from 1998 to 2002 held the position for more than a year.

    Taniguchi, who made one year in May, believes he is on course to turn the authority and its 83 public housing developments around, by addressing long-standing problems such as the glut of vacant units needing repairs and the rising tally of delinquent renters.

    And he doesn't appear to be leaving anytime soon.

    "I'm really upbeat about what we're going to be doing in the next year," said Taniguchi, who will address legislators Friday to explain the turnaround plan.

    Sitting in his office on a recent afternoon, Taniguchi, his eyeglasses perched on the tip of his nose, peruses a document as he talks. When he sees a mistake, he slashes it out with his pen and shakes his head.

    As his demeanor suggests, Taniguchi is friendly, but exacting.

    And he has a no-frills approach to leadership and, apparently, to life.

    He keeps his large office nearly devoid of plaques and framed photos, instead choosing to keep a few neat piles of documents on his desk.

    His no-frills attitude extends to his appearance Taniguchi is most likely to be wearing a simple aloha shirt, blue slacks and tennis shoes and his transportation, a bike and a helmet. Taniguchi rides his bike every day to work at his office in Kalihi from Kailua, something he started during the 2003 city bus strike.

    HELPING EACH OTHER

    Taniguchi grew up on Kaua'i, and one of his biggest mantras is personal responsibility a product of his childhood in a tight-knit community, he says, where neighbors looked out for one another, got along and pitched in whenever they could.

    On a short tour of Puahala Homes in Kalihi recently, Taniguchi is stopped by a resident who tells him that the maintenance workers need to do a better job of cleaning up trash in the public housing development.

    He listens to the woman, then asks her, with the friendliest inflection possible, "Why don't you guys help? It's your trash. The taxpayers can't pay for everything."

    It's not the answer the woman wants to hear, but Taniguchi isn't backing down. He suggests kids in the neighborhood could clean up some trash, since they're off for summer vacation.

    The woman nods and, eventually, smiles.

    She and Taniguchi part after shaking hands.

    Taniguchi evokes his personal responsibility mantra when he talks about some of the changes he plans for public housing, including instituting charges for renters who bounce checks or pay rent late, and toughening screening for public housing applicants to weed out potential problem tenants.

    Proposed screening measures include requesting an applicant's history of rent payments, "record of disturbances" and credit history.

    Taniguchi said the proposed screening policies are in line with what many other housing projects across the country are doing in an effort to keep out tenants who don't pay rent or get along with their neighbors.

    But advocates, including those locally, have raised concerns about the screening policies, saying they are counter to the humanitarian mission of public housing and could prove more harmful than helpful.

    Any changes would require approval by the HPHA board.

    Public housing already keeps out registered sex offenders, those convicted of a crime within the past three years, and anyone who has been evicted from a public housing project in the Islands since 1985. Applicants also must not owe anything to HPHA, have ever been convicted of manufacturing or dealing methamphetamine or have committed fraud in connection with the federal housing program.

    For Taniguchi, the tougher screening is meant to help existing tenants and hold applicants accountable.

    "For eligible public housing applicants, HUD (the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development) allows housing authorities to check their references to make sure that applicants will be good tenants," he said. "HUD allows housing authorities to deny admission to any applicant whose habits and practices may ... have a detrimental effect on other tenants or on the project's environment."

    Taniguchi, 56, was an attorney specializing in commercial litigation before he got into housing administration.

    "I didn't like the arguing," Taniguchi said, of his decision to leave law.

    He became housing administrator for Kaua'i County in 1990, a post he occupied until 1994, then went to work for the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands in Lihu'e until 2000. He also worked at Hawai'i Community College, and came to oversee Hawai'i public housing after serving as bills chief for the state Senate Ways and Means Committee.

    WINNING PRAISE

    Onlookers say Taniguchi has brought a can-do attitude to the Hawai'i Public Housing Authority something that's very necessary given that the agency is dealing with a shrinking budget and a deteriorating inventory.

    So far, the housing authority board, which hired Taniguchi, has been receptive to his changes, his view of how to revamp public housing and his leadership style, often described as even-handed and candid. Many advocates and residents have also taken a liking to him, often because he listens.

    He has been praised for the openness he has brought to the housing authority, including with a series of public meetings this month and next across the state for public housing residents to share their concerns and for the housing agency to share its view of how conditions will improve.

    During his first year on the job, Taniguchi says he has worked hardest on stabilizing the public housing authority a process he says will take another year or more. That work includes whittling away at the number of vacant units in need of repairs, making sure delinquent rent is collected and balancing a budget with an anticipated $4.2 million shortfall this fiscal year.

    "He has really stepped up to the plate," said housing authority board member Clarissa Hosino. "Chad has made a big impact. And he's really down to earth. He's not ashamed to go into a thrift store."

    But not everything has been rosy.

    In March, after he publicly disagreed with a plan to convert apartments at Puahala Homes for use as a transitional homeless shelter, Gov. Linda Lingle made a rare appearance at the HPHA board meeting to tell members they had made the right decision and to tell Taniguchi that he had been wrong.

    Lawmakers have also grilled Taniguchi on his progress, but he has survived legislative hearings.

    State Sen. Suzanne Chun-Oakland, chairwoman of the Committee on Human Services and Public Housing, said she's happy with the work she has been seeing so far. Of Taniguchi, she said, "he's trying really hard."

    Reach Mary Vorsino at mvorsino@honoluluadvertiser.com.