Dozens of Hawaii’s public housing projects have an immediate repair and maintenance backlog totaling an estimated $275 million.

Over the next decade, that amount is expected to grow to over $820 million, more than the facilities backlogs for public schools and colleges combined.

Despite that, Gov. David Ige recently cut the Hawaii Public Housing Authority’s budget request from $180 million to $5 million.

Ige wasn’t available to discuss why he decreased the funding so drastically, but his spokeswoman said the governor wants to put $100 million into the Rental Housing Trust Fund, far more than the $5 million the fund received last year.

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 plays at Mayor Wright Homes. The public housing project in Kalihi was upgraded after residents filed a class-action lawsuit. Despite the improvements, it still has an immediate repair and maintenance need totaling more than $14.4 million.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The Rental Housing Trust Fund subsidizes the development of low-income rentals which are sorely needed in Hawaii. But those homes may still be too expensive for the homeless and other extremely low-income people who look to public housing for shelter.

It’s a trade-off that political leaders say may be necessary because of limited money this year. But it may also force some of the state’s poorest residents to continue living in crumbling conditions that include bad plumbing and black mold.

The backlog is not surprising to Jesse Wu from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, who points out that about half of the state’s 6,000 housing units were built in the 1950s and 1960s. Wu thinks that the cost of repairing the state’s public housing units may actually exceed $1 billion.

“Frankly, they’re not getting enough money to operate the programs,” he said of HPHA. “If you don’t change the oil in your car for 30 years, there’s only so much that you can do.”

A Longstanding Problem

Twenty-five year old Nicole Bui grew up in Kalakaua Homes, a public housing project in McCully just five minutes from Waikiki.

In her family’s unit, the bathroom and sinks need to be renovated and there’s often not enough hot water. The plumbing is so bad that sometimes black water spurts out of the shower.

“Basically everything is in need of renovation,” Bui said. “Definitely we are in need, because it’s been awhile.”

Kalakaua Homes is one of about 70 projects with immediate repair needs that total up to about $275 million, according to HPHA director Hakim Ouansafi. “Immediate” refers to maintenance that needs to be done over the next one to three years to ensure that the units are safe, decent and sanitary, Ouansafi said.

HPHA estimates it would take more than $9 million to repair Kalakaua Homes alone, including interior repairs, fire protection systems, exhaust systems and site work.

The agency recently spruced up the exterior of the project by fixing the parking area and repainting the building. Ouansafi said it would be much harder to redo the units themselves because that would involve moving residents out temporarily.

Type of Public Housing Repairs Needed Cost Projected Over 10 Years
Building Exterior $74,121,067
Building Systems $90,592,415
Common Areas $74,121,067
Site $263,541,571
Unit $321,191,290
Total $823,567,409

Gavin Thornton, an attorney at the Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice, said the poor condition of Hawaii’s public housing is a longstanding issue.

In 2008 and 2011, the Appleseed Center brought class action lawsuits against the state over the living conditions at 614-unit Kuhio Park Terrace, 134-unit Kuhio Homes and 364-unit Mayor Wright Homes in Kalihi.

The lawsuits described units with bedbug infestations, broken elevators, lack of hot water and gaping holes in walls. The state was forced to upgrade the facilities and has reached a tentative settlement of about $350,000 in the Mayor Wright case that would be paid to about 360 residents and their attorneys.

Still, a look at Hawaii Public Housing Authority data shows that serious problems persist. The 260-unit Puuwai Momi project in Aiea needs more than $14 million to cover roofing, plumbing, interior repairs, site utilities, repaving and work on retaining walls.

More than $13 million is needed at the 211-unit Makua Alii along Kalakaua Avenue to renovate interior units, site and building utilities, fire protection systems and paving.

The 151-unit Kalanihuia near downtown Honolulu has a $6.8 million repair backlog that includes “complete renovation of interior units.”

Ouansafi said that HPHA has short-term, mid-term and long-term plans to address the backlog, but they all depend on how much money is available.

This year, there may not be much.

Never a High Priority

Federal funding for renovating Hawaii’s public housing has been dropping steadily over the past five years, down to $9 million in fiscal year 2014.

And the state is scaling back spending on public infrastructure projects such as building or repairing state facilities.

Ige wants the state to issue less than $700 million in general obligation bonds over the next two years to fund capital improvement projects, about half of the $1.3 billion the state appropriated in fiscal years 2013-2015.

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 walk through Mayor Wright Homes. The state is hoping to demolish, rebuild and expand the public housing project in partnership with Hunt Companies.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

House Finance Committee Chairwoman Sylvia Luke said booming private construction on Kakaako condos coupled with the city’s Honolulu rail project puts pressure on the state to scale back its spending on public projects.

She believes it doesn’t make economic sense for the state to spend a lot of money on infrastructure projects and further drive up labor costs. The state also has to keep its bond rating in mind, she said.

Luke said she’s not sure where public housing falls on her list of funding priorities, and she won’t know until she evaluates all the requests. She emphasized that lawmakers do have a commitment to providing more housing.

“There is a desire to do something,” Luke said. “It comes down to what we need to do right away.”

Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairwoman Jill Tokuda said she thinks the state should examine the full spectrum of housing needs and figure out where the state has the ability to make the most difference.

“The (public housing) infrastructure needs are significant,” Tokuda said. “We are going to have to look at how do we phase this in, how do we plan this out because obviously we can’t do it all at one time.”

She said the state should also re-examine how to help public housing residents move into other types of housing: “If it’s a disincentive to get out of housing, how is this a system that works?”

Thornton from the Appleseed Center agrees that public housing projects should ideally help people break out of the cycle of poverty. But he wonders how effective they can be when children grow up in slum-like conditions.

He’s not surprised that renovating public housing doesn’t appear to be at the top of lawmakers’ list of priorities.

“It never has been, and it isn’t until people aggravate the system by filing a lawsuit,” he said.

‘Address it Another Way’

Wu from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is more optimistic.

He said nationally, states are grappling with shrinking federal funding and deteriorating facilities, and Hawaii has been better than many other places when it comes to addressing the issue.

Between fiscal years 2013-2015, the state set aside more than $70 million to address the public housing repair and maintenance backlog.

“Can this community write a billion-dollar check to take care of public housing?” asked Wu. “We have to address it another way.”

He thinks public-private partnerships might be the solution. He pointed to the revitalized Kuhio Park Terrace, now known as The Towers at Kuhio Park. After the state partnered with Michaels Development Company, the once-decrepit complex now boasts many new facilities and comfortable residences.

Ouansafi agrees. Including Mayor Wright Homes, there are eight public housing projects along Honolulu’s planned rail line that he’s hoping to revitalize and expand, and a ninth he is hoping to build if HPHA can get the land and money.

He said the projects could add over 9,300 units to the public housing stock, more than doubling the existing number of units. That could fill a huge need for homes: Hawaii has the highest rate of homelessness among states, with an estimated 4,700 people living on the streets of Honolulu alone last year.

Project Name Net Unit Gain
Makua Ali’i & Paoakalani 340 to 640
Mayor Wright Homes 1,140
Kalanihuia 350
Kuhio Park Terrace Phase 2 260 to 660
Kamehameha & Kaahumanu 1,125 to 1,925
Puuwai Momi 340 to 940
Hale Laulima 660 to 960
Waipahu I & II, Hoolu’u & Kamalu 440 to 740
Potential Project on State Land 1,500 to 2,000

A state Senate committee on housing has already approved a bill that would set aside $20 million to redevelop Mayor Wright and another that would appropriate $6 million to repair Kuhio Park Terrace and Kuhio Homes.

Another proposal seeks $10 million to redevelop the HPHA office on North School Street and add public housing, affordable rental housing and commercial space.

But the bills will have to compete with numerous other funding requests in the Legislature this year. The governor wants to use more than $200 million in general obligation bonds to fund public schools and more than $120 million for the state’s department of business and tourism.

The Option of Moving Out

Meanwhile, public housing conditions continue to deteriorate. That has led to a few small payouts: The state gave $100 this year to Kalakaua Homes residents Derrick and Imelda Willis when their television set was damaged by a roach infestation.

One of their neighbors, a 22-year-old named Kelsie, who declined to provide her last name, said that the unit she shares with her parents has bad plumbing, loose cabinets and an old, discolored bathtub.

“The people are either with us or on the streets. There’s nothing more for them.” — Hakim Ouansafi, director, Hawaii Public Housing Authority

After seven years of living in public housing, however, she’s resigned to the conditions.

“We’ve been dealing with it for so long, it’s not really a problem,” said Kelsie, who noted that she and her parents hope to move out soon now that they all have jobs.

Not all residents have that option. Kathleen Fetters, who lives in Nani Olu, a Big Island public housing project for disabled and elderly people, has complained for years about black mold.

Two of her neighbors moved out because they worried the mold was affecting their health. But even though HPHA helped Fetters switch apartments, she still suspects mold is growing underneath her floorboard. She said her impaired immune system makes her particularly vulnerable and since moving into the complex, she’s developed asthma.

“I’m very, very ill from these exposures,” she said.

Ouansafi knows that the population he serves can’t afford Hawaii rents, which jumped 10 percent over just the past two years. To qualify for public housing, residents must earn 30 percent or less of area median income. They tend to work in low-paying jobs, such as Bui’s father, who is a cab driver.

Ouansafi also knows that there isn’t much money available to go around, but hopes that the awareness of the state’s homelessness and housing crises will help spur lawmakers to action.

“The people are either with us or on the streets,” Ouansafi said. “There’s nothing more for them.”

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