Public housing: Deplorable conditions demand action
The minimum expected of public housing, according to multiple federal laws on the books, is that it be "decent, safe, and sanitary." It's simply unconscionable that there are still public housing projects in Hawai'i that can't even reach that low bar.
Yet for years, if not decades, Kuhio Park Terrace and Kuhio Homes have been plagued by neglect and conditions making them unfit to live in by almost any standard: chronically broken and overcrowded elevators, posing troubling challenges for disabled residents; a lack of proper fire safety equipment; trash chutes boarded up by plywood, posing safety and sanitation risks; unsafe aging stairwells; and severe infestations of roaches, rats and bedbugs.
Built in the mid-1960s, the federally backed, state-run projects are also home for roughly 3,000 lower-income residents. These residents will tell you that the neglect spans multiple administrations, and passed through dozens of legislative sessions.
They'll tell you about elevators that don't run much of the time, of the filthy, wet and slippery stairwells they can be forced to use, sometimes carrying disabled family members up and down; of units with persistent leaks in ceilings and walls; and of hot water that's rarely available due to broken water heaters.
Sii Tuia, who has suffered two strokes and has difficulty navigating stairs during the frequent elevator breakdowns, fell on wet steps that lacked nonslip treads.
Gene Strickland, whose spinal cord injury left him unable to walk unaided, can't get in and out of the shower without help. He's been asking for more than two years for hand rails to be installed in the shower; at one point he fell and was trapped between the shower and toilet for six hours until his wife came home from work.
He finally decided to install them at his own expense.
And there's Katherine Vaiola, who lives in a street-level unit in adjacent Kuhio Homes but because of an amputated leg can't get upstairs to bathe or use the toilet. Long on the waiting list for a unit with a more accessible floor plan, she is confined to the downstairs living area. For five years, she has used a plastic toilet in her living room and has taken sponge baths in the kitchen sink.
Beyond the chronic health and safety issues that demand action, liability issues just may leave taxpayers holding the bag.
The Hawai'i Public Housing Authority, which oversees the project, has long been plagued by problems of its own. The agency has had five directors in seven years. And for years it has suffered from insufficient funding for repairs at Kuhio projects or other public housing.
But armed with an infusion of capital from lawmakers about three years ago, the state embarked on a "turnaround plan" to attack its maintenance backlog.
Unfortunately, it has progressed too slowly to avert a pair of class-action lawsuits, one in state Circuit Court and one in federal District Court, that seek orders to correct numerous shortcomings in the living conditions.
In the federal case, residents are seeking accommodations for their various disabilities, charging that the state and its project managers have violated the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The residents are represented by the firm Lawyers for Equal Justice at both the federal and state suits; the latter case alleges that the housing was not kept in habitable and safe condition and breached the terms of its leases with the tenants.
Chad Taniguchi, the authority's executive director since 2007, said efforts to chip away at the problem began independently and without prompting by lawsuits. He defended the progress made so far and cited a change in contractors among reasons for delay. The six elevators will be replaced in pairs, the first two done next April, the completion of all six is by May 2011.
Two water boilers have been replaced. Fire alarms are due to be finished in December. The garbage chutes will be repaired by April 2010, he said, because a building permit is still pending. And the authority says it is working on a plan to provide more disabled-accessible units.
Mark Bennett, state attorney general, declined to comment at length on the court actions. But he did make a general characterization of the argument: "We're not saying there are no problems, but legally it doesn't justify the relief the plaintiffs are seeking, in either case."
However, some residents have waited decades for some fairly basic improvements to be made. Vaiola, for example, has lived in the complex since 1976, in her apartment since 1993. Her confinement downstairs has been going on for five years, with no relief.
Chronic inaction has prompted the tenants' attorneys to seek a court order forcing improvements to be made, in particular for the disabled tenants. They are expected this week to file for an injunction in the federal case.
"For decades, the state hasn't made the structural changes they need to make to the buildings and the premises," said attorney Elizabeth Dunne. "They haven't been following a policy to provide accommodation to people with disabilities.
"Because they continue to fail to do so, we need the court to order them to do so."
Any visitor can see — and smell — the basis for complaints. The editorial board of The Advertiser visited both projects last week and found many of the conditions persist. Noxious odors, which tenants say result from rodent feces and roach dander, filled corridors and stairwells. The single working elevator, which also reeked, was packed to the gills. Garbage chutes covered only by flimsy plywood, if at all, were within reach of young children on several floors of the high-rise. Some living units had persistent leaks in the ceilings and walls. And there was a clear shortage of parking stalls and ramps for the handicapped.
Some tenants are paying upward of $900 per month for the right to live in such conditions. Equally intolerable: Letting health and safety hazards persist here has left the state fighting these lawsuits, and vulnerable to more, with taxpayers forced to pick up the tab.
The question of whether the state has met its legal obligation to its Kuhio tenants will be answered as the court challenges play out, but the state should immediately take a hard look at its contract with the firm managing the complex, Realty Laua Inc., to ensure its duties are being fulfilled. Resident complaints about building conditions, as well as about security provided to tenants, must be addressed.
Lawmakers this session also passed a resolution demanding a management audit of state public housing projects — including the Kuhio projects. The state auditor should conduct and deliver a thorough study as quickly as possible, so that systemic problems can be properly and promptly addressed.
Additionally, the state needs to give the tenants a real voice in the upkeep of their place of residence. A tenants' association should be created, one that can serve as a sounding board and an intermediary between tenants and project managers.
Taniguchi called on residents to get involved in planned cleanup projects and overall stewardship of the property. Some of the responsibility over the care of the buildings and grounds should fall with the residents. As in many public housing projects, some tenants have been guilty of vandalism and behavior that damages the property. A tenants' group can help hold residents accountable for doing their part to keep the project livable.
But the onus remains on the state to provide — at minimum — repairs and adjustments that bring this project in line with decent health and safety standards.
It's time to fix this problem. Hawai'i's leaders have not met their obligation to the state's neediest residents. They deserve housing that's decent, safe and sanitary — anything less is a simply a disgrace.