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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, June 18, 2009

Hawaii public housing director urges veto of fees, limited stays


By Mary Vorsino
Advertiser Urban Honolulu Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

The head of the state's public housing authority is against legislation that would require renters to pay an estimated $10 to $20 a month to maintain common areas.

Photos by DEBORAH BOOKER | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Victoria Milo, president of the Puahala Homes Association, says tenants of the public housing project would struggle to pay any hikes in rents or fees.

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The governor should veto a bill that would require public housing tenants to pay for litter cleanup and minor repairs in common areas, the head of the Hawai'i Public Housing Authority said.

Executive Director Chad Taniguchi also opposes a bill that could cap tenants' stay in public housing projects at five years. Currently, there is no limit for how long someone can stay in public housing in the Islands.

Some residents of public housing projects said they wouldn't mind paying a small fee for common area maintenance if it would speed repairs.

However, others said that any new fees are unreasonable for families that are already cash-strapped.

"We're in a recession," said Victoria Milo, president of the Puahala Homes resident association. She said public housing tenants would have to struggle to pay for the proposed increases, which she said "added onto the frustration that's going on right now just surviving from month to month."

The fee has been estimated at $10 or $20 a month. It follows state attempts to increase minimum rents in all state-owned public housing in some cases more than doubling the current rent.

Taniguchi said he supports the intent of the legislative measures. But he said they are too costly and difficult to implement at a time when funding to state agencies is being slashed and workers are being furloughed.

Taniguchi has also raised concerns about potential negative effects of the bills one of which also includes changes to the eviction process that would require evictions be put on hold for about six months as new administrative rules are written and approved.

Lawmakers say that the measures are needed if the state is serious about addressing longstanding concerns about public housing and giving tenants more responsibility in cleaning up the projects.

"They should welcome this legislative mandate as a support to them," said state Rep. Rida Cabanilla, D-42nd ('Ewa, Waipahu, Honouliuli), chairwoman of the Housing Committee. She added that public housing residents need "to take responsibility for their surroundings or nothing will happen. It should be them" paying for the common area expenses, she said.

The bills, which drew opposition from advocates for the poor, only apply to the 864 state-funded public housing units in the Islands. There are an additional 5,328 units in the state that are federally funded, and whose rents are set by the federal government.

EFFORTS TO REVAMP HOUSING

The proposed changes come as the state is trying to revamp housing projects statewide by addressing backlogged repairs and maintenance, cracking down on delinquent renters and streamlining operations so vacant units are filled quicker. The efforts, part of a turnaround plan begun last year, has resulted in a higher rental collection rate and a balanced budget for the housing authority for the first time in five years.

But other progress, including the efforts to chip away at some $320 million in backlogged maintenance, has been slow.

Officials say that's largely because the authority has limited funding and is short on staff. And, Taniguchi said, those two factors play a big role in why it isn't feasible right now to start collecting common-area fees and limiting how long tenants can stay.

"With the state financial situation so difficult, we have to look at ... really the basics," he said.

Today, at its monthly meeting, Taniguchi will recommend to the housing authority's board members that they also support a veto of the measures House Bill 1692, which would allow capping stays at a public housing project, and Senate Bill 1160, which mandates the common areas fee. The board's views will be sent to the governor.

It's unclear when Lingle will make a decision on the measures, a spokesman said.

The bill aimed at capping the number of years people can live in state public housing would set up a pilot project at one housing development. Under the bill, those who are living in the housing project chosen for the pilot as of July 1 would have to leave after five years. Those who enter after July 1 would be allowed to live there for seven years.

The cap would not apply to the elderly or the disabled.

On the Mainland, 32 housing authorities also participate in the Moving to Work program, which limits the amount of time people can stay in federal public housing to five years. The federal program is not taking any other housing authorities as participants, so it can't be expanded here.

The average stay for tenants in state public housing projects was not available yesterday. But 2008 federal figures show more than one-third of the families who live in Hawai'i's federal public housing projects have been there for 10 years or more.

Cabanilla, who introduced the bill to limit stays in public housing, said it was meant to encourage people to think of public housing as transitional, rather than permanent. She also said the cap is needed to accommodate the more than 6,000 people waiting to get into state public housing. There are about 8,300 on the waiting list to get into federal housing units.

The bill originally called for an across-the-board time limit, but that was reduced to a pilot project in the final days of the legislative session. Taniguchi said he thinks an across-the-board time limit would have been easier and cheaper to implement than a pilot and he would have supported it. He said the pilot "is going to take an inordinate amount of time."

Travis Thompson, chairman of the Hawai'i Public Housing Authority board, said he isn't sure how the full board will view the time limits issue. He said he doesn't like the idea, though, because it doesn't offer solutions for how to prepare tenants to move before their time is up.

But Thompson said he supports charging tenants for common area expenses.

"I think it's somehow appropriate for people to share," he said.

MINIMUM RENTS SET TO RISE

The common area expenses bill would require tenants to pay 1 percent of state spending on "common areas" at their buildings a fee that legislators said could include costs for landscaping, picking up litter and other repairs to publicly used areas. The housing authority was unable to estimate how much it spends on common areas maintenance annually. Taniguchi has also called the definition of common areas too vague.

Lawmakers said their own rough calculations showed that common area fees for tenants would likely be no more than $20 a month.

State Sen. Norman Sakamoto, D-15th (Waimalu, Airport, Salt Lake), who introduced the common areas fees bill, said it was designed to spur a feeling of ownership and pride at public housing projects. He said, for example, that if public housing residents have to help pay to clean up graffiti or vandalism, they will be more likely to take care of their project.

"They'll either be more alert and ask others not to cause those costs to go up or they will just be more careful," said Sakamoto, chairman of the Senate Education and Housing Committee.

Public housing residents had mixed reactions to the bills.

Clomy Melson, 55, a resident of Puahala Homes in Kalihi, said that she wouldn't mind paying for some common area expenses if it meant maintenance work was done more often and problems were dealt with more quickly. Melson, a 20-year resident of the project, lives at Puahala with her husband, two children and four grandchildren.

She said she'd like to stay and doesn't like the idea of a time limit.

"It's nice out here," she said.

But Milo, the Puahala association president, said public housing families won't be able to handle any increase in living expenses.

"It's very difficult," she said. "Families with little children, they're going to be hit the hardest."

The proposed common area fee comes as the state is also looking to raise the minimum rent for all state public housing units to $250 a month.

The current minimum rent for a one-bedroom is $108. The minimum rent for a five-bedroom is $212.

Sheila Lippolt, head of the housing unit at the Legal Aid Society of Hawai'i, said the rent increase coupled with the proposed charges for common area expenses will leave low-income families in state public housing struggling to pay their bills.

She said many of those in public housing are disabled or elderly and live on fixed incomes.

"I'm just really concerned about the people who will be affected by this," she said. "They're on too low an income to absorb" an increase.

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