'NO OTHER PLACE TO GO'
Collapse at Kalihi home reveals 'hidden homeless' struggles
|Photo gallery: Makeshift home collapses|
By Mary Vorsino
Advertiser Urban Honolulu Writer
By Mary Vorsino
Tenants of a Kalihi home with makeshift additions where at least 50 people lived until the partial collapse of one of those illegal structures Sunday say they couldn't afford anything more than the rooms offered at the property, some of which were constructed of little more than poles, plywood and tarps.
"We had no other place to go," said Bernadette I. Yockman, 58, who lived at the Gulick Avenue residence with her daughter, also named Bernadette, and 3-year-old grandson. Her 33-year-old daughter paid $500 a month for a room, while Yockman lived rent-free in a small room of her own in exchange for working on the property, which has two bathrooms and one stove. "When I moved in, I said, 'I can't live like this,' " said Yockman, who has lived at the residence for two years.
"It was unsanitary. It was terrible. But we needed a roof over our heads."
The city says it has been working to address the deplorable conditions at the home. Henry Eng, city Department of Planning and Permitting director, said yesterday, "The city has taken steps to foreclose on the property" after its owners were unwilling or unable to pay more than $53,000 in fines issued to them for the illegal structures.
The addition to the home that collapsed and fell into a streambed behind the property was built much like scaffolding — with floors made out of thin wood and tarpaulins used to shield tenants from the sun and rain. There are several such additions on the home, some of which were at one point as high as four stories, neighbors said.
Advocates say the case highlights the dire need for affordable housing in the Islands.
And they say the Gulick Avenue house is not the only place where renters are living in squalid conditions out of necessity.
"There's a whole cadre of people who are living in less than acceptable conditions," said Doran Porter, executive director of the Affordable Housing and Homeless Alliance, which provides case management to the homeless and pushes for more affordable rentals. "The cost of rent is so high that people are living in structures that are really not sound."
The American Red Cross of Hawai'i opened a temporary shelter Sunday night at Kalihi District Park for residents, including several children, displaced from the home. The tenants are being allowed to take their things from the home, though they are not allowed to stay.
About 21 people stayed at the shelter Sunday, while others stayed with family or in their cars.
The Red Cross said it's unclear how long the shelter will stay open or where the tenants will go when it closes.
The agency is working with the displaced residents to see what options they have, and to link them up with nonprofits or service providers that could offer them help.
CONCERNS LOOKED OVER
Jay Young, who moved in next to the Kalihi home eight months ago, said he has been trying to get city and state agencies to take action against the owners of the house at 1732 Gulick Ave. for months. He said his complaints have spurred little action. Meanwhile, other neighbors say they also have been raising concerns about the house for at least five years.
"It's crazy," Young said, adding he has befriended many tenants of the home. "It's a complete array of people. They're not all drug addicts. They are good people who are down on their luck."
In an e-mail yesterday, Eng said the city has gotten more than 20 complaints about "illegal construction" on the property.
"What collapsed was this illegal construction," added Eng, who could not be reached for further comment.
The owners of the home were listed in Honolulu property records as Loida Santos, Grace Santos and George Jenkins. They could not be reached yesterday. Daniel Cunningham, who tenants identified as the on-site property manager and who collected rent and allegedly oversaw the construction of the illegal additions to the home, did not return phone calls.
Cunningham has run for Honolulu mayor and other elected positions.
Neighbors say the situation raises questions about whether the city can — and should — act faster in similar cases.
The makeshift structure at the home collapsed about 5:45 p.m. Sunday.
Though no one was injured in the collapse, tenants say someone could have been.
Robert Bates, 58, said his room was in the addition that fell into the streambed Sunday.
He had just left the room to brush his teeth when it collapsed. Bates, who was paying about $700 for a room, said the house was the only option for some because they didn't have good rent histories or couldn't afford to put down money for a security deposit and first month's rent. For his small room, he added, he didn't have to pay a security deposit.
'I WAS STUCK HERE'
Raphael Gutierrez, 37, has lived in a nearby room for nearly two years.
His room wasn't damaged in the collapse, but he wasn't allowed in it yesterday because the property was unsafe.
"I'm homeless. I'm just in shock," said Gutierrez, who pays about $500 a month for a room at the home. In addition to rent, Gutierrez said he would be asked to donate hundreds of hours a month to work on the house, including building illegal structures, in exchange for his rent staying the same. He said he was forced to comply because he couldn't afford anything more. "I'm struggling," said Gutierrez, who works in construction and has a young son who doesn't live with him.
"I was stuck here."
Neighbors said conditions at the home were not only unsafe, but unsanitary.
With only two bathrooms, some tenants would urinate into the stream or onto the property, neighbors said.
There is also a massive trash pile in front of the home, for which the owners have also been cited.
Porter said those in the Gulick Avenue home are considered "hidden homeless" — a term that includes people who are overcrowded in rentals because they can't afford anything more. Last year, according to new Census figures, Hawai'i had the highest rents in the nation. Median monthly rent was $1,194 in Hawai'i last year, meaning half of all renters paid more.
Only three other states had four-figure median rental rates — California, New Jersey and Maryland.
And though the housing market has cooled somewhat, advocates say rents have not gone down considerably.
Darlene Hein, program director of the Waikiki Care-a-Van, which provides services to homeless islandwide, said she often hears of people doubling, tripling or quadrupling up or "actually taking shifts at houses" because of the high rents.
"It's not unusual," she said, adding that the Gulick Avenue home is an extreme case, but by no means the only home on O'ahu with multiple illegal additions. She said it is also harder to help the "hidden homeless" because they are not visible — sleeping in parks or on beaches — and often don't know where to go for help or what help is available to them.
"Because there are so many homeless, they become a secondary concern," she said.
Kathi Hasegawa, executive director of Hawaii Habitat for Humanity, said her agency sees many families living in "substandard housing."
Renters find themselves in substandard housing "because of the lack of affordable housing," she said, adding, "when you get high rents for substandard housing, there's really no incentive to repair that housing."
Reach Mary Vorsino at email@example.com.