Ex-Colorado official named housing chief
By Mary Vorsino
Advertiser Urban Honolulu Writer
Hawai'i Public Housing Authority board members say they're confident the agency's new executive director is the best person to lead it through a redevelopment of its largest public housing project and the ongoing work to tackle millions of dollars in backlogged repairs.
The board unanimously voted Jan. 7 to put Denise Wise of Gunnison County, Colo., in the top spot. Her appointment was announced Sunday.
Wise last worked at a rural housing authority where the focus was on homeownership and self-sufficiency. Board members say she brings 25 years of management experience in affordable housing development and operations and in leadership positions with Bank of America and the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco.
She is set to start in early March, and will be paid about $90,000. She will be the agency's eighth executive director since 1998.
Wise takes over a long-beleaguered state agency that's grappling to address backlogged maintenance needs and vacancies, and has struggled to crack down on tenants who pay late or not at all. She also steps in as HPHA is preparing to kick off a $316 million redevelopment of Kuhio Park Terrace and Kuhio Homes, where residents filed a class-action lawsuit in 2008 over unsafe and unsanitary conditions.
Travis Thompson, HPHA board chairman, said Wise has worked as a consultant to troubled housing agencies and he added though Wise comes from a small housing authority, she also has invaluable experience in the financial sector.
Wise said yesterday from Colorado that she is looking forward to sitting down with public housing residents in the Islands and walking through projects statewide to see firsthand what needs to be addressed. She said she also wants to put together a strategic plan for HPHA within a year.
Wise was the executive director of the Gunnison County housing authority from 2005 to 2008. She resigned from the housing authority in August 2008 to take care of her sick mother.
The authority serves rural communities and concentrates on rental vouchers, homeownership and family self-sufficiency. It has one federally funded public housing project that was targeted to seniors, Wise said.
"I'm very familiar with the procedures and what needs to be done (with public housing). What would be different is just the scale," she said.
HPHA manages 83 public housing developments statewide, along with a Section 8 rent voucher program. Its homeless programs branch handles millions of dollars in federal grants annually.
Wise replaces Chad Taniguchi, a former attorney and Kaua'i housing administrator, who was hired in 2007. The board started looking for his replacement in September after saying they were not happy with his overall job performance.
Taniguchi won praise, however, from some residents, who said he was making great strides to turn the agency around.
A handful of residents attended the HPHA board meeting on Jan. 7, when the board interviewed finalists and picked Wise in executive session.
During testimony to the board Jan. 7, Taniguchi said big improvements have been made at HPHA since he was hired.
"After five years of losing an average $7 million per year in operations, HPHA balanced its operating budget for the year ending June 30, 2009," he said. "I know there is a lot more to be done, and would have relished solving the remaining challenges with you all."
Jun Yang, an advocate for public housing tenants with Faith Action for Community Equity, yesterday said Wise needs to maintain an open dialogue with residents to move HPHA forward.
"The reason why Chad was so successful is he made himself known and accessible to residents," he said, adding that Wise could initially be met with mistrust because she's from the Mainland.
Yesterday, Wise said that although she has never lived in Hawai'i, she visits at least three times a year and knows the state well.
"It's a place that I'm familiar with and comfortable with," Wise said.
HPHA board member Clarissa Hosino said Wise may not have experience heading a large housing authority, but she does have a passion for helping people and a clear vision on how to address longstanding concerns at the authority.
"Just because they're not from Hawai'i, doesn't mean they don't have the compassion of different cultures," Hosino said. "Her passion is there for the people."