If you’re evicted from state-run public housing for any reason in Hawaii, you can’t go back — ever.

The lifetime ban is stricter than housing authority rules in several major cities, including Chicago, Los Angeles and New York.

But now the Hawaii Public Housing Authority, which manages over 6,000 units statewide, is looking to change the rule in light of the state’s homelessness crisis.

Kids play inside Mayor Wright public housing for Anita story. Didn’t notice much neglect or damage. After speaking to several residents most declined to let me check out inside their residences. 31 jan 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Children at the Mayor Wright public housing project on Oahu.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The authority’s board gave initial approval Oct. 15 to a proposed policy change that would allow people evicted for nonpayment of rent to reapply for public housing if they pay back the money they owe.

“Sometimes, families may run into hard financial times where they lose a job or become sick or disabled and are unable to pay their rent due to circumstances beyond their control,” the agency’s executive director, Hakim Ouansafi, said in an email. “If they are able to pay back all amounts owed to the HPHA and want to live in public housing, we don’t think they should automatically be barred.”

The agency is waiting for approval from Gov. David Ige to hold a public hearing on the potential change. The agency’s board also must consult with the resident advisory board. After doing both, the board would need to vote on the proposal again and seek final approval from Ige before the policy could be implemented.

“To never allow that family into public housing again is almost like a death sentence, a sentence to eternal homelessness.” — Gavin Thornton, Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice

The idea is to help alleviate homelessness by allowing people a second chance at public housing. Ouansafi said the vast majority of evictions are based on nonpayment of rent, and attorneys and social service workers say many of the people who are evicted end up on the streets.

The change would put the authority’s rules more in line with those of public housing agencies in Chicago, New York City, Boston and Los Angeles, where there is no lifetime ban on people evicted for nonpayment of rent.

“The current policy seems very harsh,” said Deborah Thrope, a staff attorney at the National Housing Law Project, who said she couldn’t think of any other housing authority with a similar restriction. “The best practice is to really look at the mitigating circumstances and not just have a blanket ban.”

Megan Hustings, interim executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, called the proposed rule change “a step in the right direction.”

“It speaks to the systemic but also the multi-pronged approach that we have to have to ending homelessness,” she said.

‘Eternal Homelessness’

Officials say they don’t know how many of Hawaii’s estimated 7,000 homeless people were evicted from public housing. But of the 180 eviction cases that the Housing Authority conducted hearings on through September this year, 78.3 percent dealt with rent violations. Not every hearing results in an eviction.

That’s consistent with what attorney Sheila Lippolt sees in her work at the Legal Aid Society of Hawaii helping public housing tenants fight evictions. She estimates that of the 50 or so clients that she helps each year, 80 percent face eviction because they haven’t paid rent.

The Housing Authority generally sets rent as a percentage of a resident’s income, a formula that’s supposed to ensure the housing remains affordable.

But Lippolt says the agency calculates rent based on pre-tax income and sometimes once taxes are paid, a resident can’t afford rent and other necessities.

“Usually they’re on such a limited income if they get behind they can’t catch up,” she said.

If residents lose their jobs, they must report their change of income to the Housing Authority within 10 days and the agency will adjust their rent downward. But sometimes residents don’t report such changes within the required timeframe and end up owing more rent than they can afford.

Marin Tower, one of the city's affordable housing properties

In addition to state public housing, people who have been evicted from public housing are disqualified from Honolulu affordable rental properties like Marin Tower.

PF Benley/Civil Beat

Gavin Thornton, co-executive director at the Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice, said sometimes tenants don’t understand that they’re supposed to report a change in income right away, especially if they are recent immigrants and don’t speak or understand English well.

“To never allow that family into public housing again is almost like a death sentence, a sentence to eternal homelessness,” he said. “A lot of times people end up in public housing because they have nowhere else to go.”

The restriction against evicted residents is particularly troubling to attorney Dina Shek, executive director of the Medical Legal Partnership for Children in Hawaii. Shek says her organization has worked with clients whose rent was miscalculated or who have miscommunicated with the Housing Authority.

“We’ve seen circumstances where people have been caught up in evictions without having complete due process,” she said. “Without advocacy, they could face that lifetime ban.”

“Certainly people deserve a second chance and I think it sounds like a very good step for helping to keep people housed,” Shek said of the possible rule change. “It’s always better to have families be housed than to leave them houseless and often doubled up and bouncing around.”

Should The Reform Be Broader?

According to Thrope from the National Housing Law Project, the only blanket bans that the federal government imposes on public housing are aimed at people who have been convicted of drug crimes or are sex offenders.

Public housing agencies have discretion as to what additional restrictions they want to impose.

The New York City Public Housing Authority blocks residents who have been evicted from returning to public housing for five years. In Boston, the Housing Authority can deny applicants who have been evicted from public housing within the past three years.

The Chicago Housing Authority has a two-year ban on residents who defaulted on rent. In both Boston and Chicago, residents also have to pay back any money that they owe to housing agency.

In San Diego, the county Housing Authority may deny an applicant who has been evicted for nonpayment of rent over the past three years, but doesn’t have to.

Kids play inside Mayor Wright public housing for Anita story. Didn’t notice much neglect or damage. After speaking to several residents most declined to let me check out inside their residences. 31 jan 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat

A child playing at the Mayor Wright public housing complex.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Advocates for affordable housing and homeless people say it makes sense to relax the restrictions on who is allowed to apply for public housing because the people who need public housing have few other options.

“It’s not like people leave and go find an apartment they can afford,” said Linda Couch, senior vice president for policy at the National Low-Income Housing Coalition. “They leave and they double up and triple up or they’re not living in housing at all.”

Both Couch and Hustings from the National Coalition for the Homeless said it would be preferable to remove the lifetime ban for evicted residents entirely, not just those who didn’t keep up on their rent.

There are over two dozen ways public housing residents can get evicted, including adding locks or fixtures to their unit without written permission; smoking on the premises; keeping a pet that they’re not allowed to have; and allowing additional guests to live with them.

Ouansafi from the Housing Authority noted that the agency needs to comply with federal rules regarding bans on people with criminal activity. But he said the agency is in the process of reviewing other policies as well.

“We think it is a good start that is reasonable and makes sense, and perhaps can provide housing to more very low-income households in need of housing,” Ounsafi said.

Couch agreed.

“That is the whole idea behind a housing safety net, that when you need it the most, stable housing will be there for you so you can get your life back on track in every other way,” she said. “Especially when you’re on an island, just because the person leaves the housing development doesn’t mean their need vanishes.”

Read the proposed rule change below:

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