Hawaii tackles unpaid rents
By Mary Vorsino
Advertiser Urban Honolulu Writer
Incoming public housing tenants could be subject to credit checks and visits to their current home under proposals meant to better screen applicants and cut down on delinquent renters.
The planned changes are troubling some advocates, who say making it harder for low-income people to get into public housing will only worsen the housing crisis.
But public housing officials say the changes are meant to decrease the number of tenants who fail to pay or who damage units, spurring costly repairs that add up quickly. And they point out that other public housing authorities already take similar steps.
In December, more than 20 percent of the thousands of households in public housing were behind on their rent, with the Hawai'i Public Housing Authority owed as much as $1 million.
The planned screening measures are part of other proposed changes to decrease rent delinquency in public housing, including speeding up evictions, and come as the agency attempts to tackle an aging public housing inventory, deal with budget shortfalls and catch up on tens of millions of dollars in backlogged repairs.
Travis Thompson, board chairman, said the proposals — included in the housing authority's draft annual plan — are still being discussed and likely won't go up for a vote until next month, after public hearings are held. If the board approves the changes, administrative rules would be written and those could go into effect in July.
Thompson said that he personally supports the addition of credit checks for prospective renters, though he added it isn't yet clear how the checks would work, including if HPHA would only look at rent-paying habits or also look at timeliness in paying other bills. He said those details would be worked out in administrative rules.
Thompson added that he isn't sold on the idea of home visits, since reviews could be subjective. He also said home visits would require manpower that HPHA doesn't have.
Other HPHA officials have supported home visits.
Advocates say that though they understand the authority's interest in addressing late-paying renters, they're concerned about the move to toughen screening policies.
"The goal of public housing is not to house people with good credit. It's to house people who need housing," said Jun Yang, of Faith Action for Community Equity, which advocates for tenants. Instituting credit checks, Yang said, will keep out those in need.
Doran Porter, executive director of the Affordable Housing and Homeless Alliance, a nonprofit that helps the homeless islandwide, said the purpose of public housing is to bring people out of poverty, not to penalize them because they have a spotty rental history.
Porter added that he would rather see HPHA working with tenants to improve their credit.
HPHA is Hawai'i's largest affordable-housing landlord, overseeing 5,236 federally funded and 864 state-funded public housing units in properties statewide.
The long-beleaguered agency has been struggling to address years of backlogged maintenance needs and vacancies, and has also tried to crack down on tenants who pay late or not at all, largely by pushing forward with evictions. That tactic doesn't appear to have worked. Though rent collection has improved, the amount owed by delinquent renters is still significant.
In December, delinquent rent totaled nearly $1 million, according to figures reported to the HPHA board. An HPHA spokesman said that figure might be lower, however, because of some suspected incorrect counting.
Back rent was owed by about 1,252 households who were one or more months late.
Most evictions in public housing are for overdue rent. From July to December, about 167 households were referred to HPHA's eviction board. Of those cases, 140 were for not paying rent. In fiscal year 2009, there were 194 rent cases referrered for eviction.
Rent in public housing is set at 30 percent of a household's income and so is widely considered affordable for even the poorest families, but advocates have raised concerns about speeding up the eviction process because they worry it will hurt otherwise good tenants who miss a rent payment for unforeseen reasons, such as a medical emergency.
The push to toughen screening measures for new public housing tenants comes as HPHA is kicking off work to revamp housing projects in the worst shape, starting with a $316 million redevelopment of Kuhio Park Terrace and Kuhio Homes set to start in 2011.
The makeover will be modeled on public housing redevelopment projects in other states, which add near-market or market units to a property to bring in more funds for maintenance and deconcentrate poverty. The work will require little direct state money.
HPHA is already looking at redeveloping other properties in similar ways.
The draft plan reflects much of that new direction, which comes as HPHA also welcomes a new executive director next month. Incoming director Denise Wise, of Colorado, said the screening measures are part of a bid to "tune" HPHA policies.
Credit checks, she said "may be new for HPHA, but (aren't) for other housing authorities." She also said that many authorities use the screening not to automatically disqualify new tenants, but to look for major issues, especially on rent-paying habits.
She said the checks also find prior landlord judgments for failure to pay rent or for damage to a unit. "The overall mission of public housing is to provide decent, safe and sanitary housing," Wise said. "Safe housing means the physical structure, but also the other tenants." She added that credit checks are as important as criminal history checks.
HPHA currently does background checks on new tenants.
HPHA can turn away tenants if they have a "recent history" of criminal activity.
Tenants also cannot have an outstanding debt to HPHA.
Other proposed changes in the draft plan include:
• Eviction proceedings will start 60 days after a tenant is late on one month's rent, compared with the current 90 days. In fiscal year 2011, the process will start within 30 days.
• Units in need of major work will be repaired within 270 days.
• The preference for homeless people on the public housing waiting list will be redefined as anyone in a homeless shelter who is following a "service plan." People living in parks, in their cars or in tents on the beach would not get the preference.
Also a waitlist preference will be added for "working families."
DRAFT PUBLIC HOUSING PLAN
• Would require credit checks on incoming applicants
• Would require incoming tenants be visited at their existing home
• Changes the preferences for the waiting list to exclude unsheltered homeless
• Includes a preference on the waitlist for working families
• Would speed up evictions to address bad renters
Source: Hawai'i Public Housing Authority
A public hearing on the new draft annual plan for the Hawai'i Public Housing Authority is set for 6 p.m. March 15 at the housing authority's offices at 1003 N. School St.
There also will be meetings that day on the Neighbor Islands.
For more information or to see the draft plan, go to www.hcdch.hawaii.gov