- Special Projects
It’ll be at least another year before anyone lives in the Salt Lake Apartments, a 28-unit public housing complex that’s already been empty more than a year.
Plumbing upgrades are underway, but after the building was vacated, thieves broke in and stole copper from the pipes and electrical system. The total price tag exceeds $5 million.
At Hale Laulima in Pearl City, 15 of 36 units are empty for renovation because the walls weren’t framed properly and the windows were only supported by dry wall after an electrician and plumber previously cut through the frames.
A unit at Makani Kai Hale on Maui is vacant after a tenant punched holes in the walls and tore out electrical wiring. It needs new bathroom and plumbing fixtures, electrical rewiring and new appliances. The walls and the flooring also need fixing.
There are myriad reasons for vacancies in Hawaii’s public housing units, and apparently few shortcuts to making them habitable again.
The Hawaii Public Housing Authority, which oversees 6,195 units statewide, estimates 175 units are temporarily unoccupied due to families moving out or the need for repairs.
Another 239 units, including the Salt Lake Apartments, are receiving major repairs and upgrades. Those units — classified as undergoing modernization — aren’t included in the Housing Authority’s official vacancy rate, but bring the total number of empty state public housing units to over 400.
It’s hard not to compare the number of empty units to the number of homeless people, including those living in a tent that can be seen from the rear balconies of the Salt Lake Apartments.
The units can house an average of 3.5 people apiece, so in total they represent potential shelter for more than 1,400 people. It was estimated there were 1,939 unsheltered homeless people on Oahu as of April.
Legally, the Housing Authority can’t allow people to live in the units unless they are “decent, safe, sanitary and in good repair.” Federal law says the units must have hot and cold running water as well as working bathrooms, electrical systems and smoke detectors, among other requirements.
The authority’s ability to make the units available relies largely on funding and manpower. Both were undermined this past legislative session as lawmakers only provided $4.1 million to address the agency’s 10-year, $820 million repair and maintenance backlog and at the same time ended a civil service exemption that allowed for more efficient repairs.
There are other challenges, too. Some were unexpected, like the discovery of contaminated soil at a Maui complex. Others are recurrent, such as the long wait to obtain building permits. Navigating the paper trail can take a year or longer, delaying construction and the ability for families to move in.
Hakim Ouansafi, executive director of the Housing Authority, said his staff is working to fill the empty units as fast as possible. The agency has reached an agreement with the United Public Workers union to assemble a new maintenance team to make repairs. And Ouansafi plans to approach the Honolulu City Council to request an expedited permitting process.
He said he is also working on potential partnerships with non-profits, but must tread carefully to ensure that the agency doesn’t violate any agreements with the unions.
Sen. Suzanne Chun Oakland said there’s little that state lawmakers can do until the Legislature reconvenes next January.
The longtime housing advocate said she is afraid the state will regress to the situation 10 years ago, when more than 700 public housing units were vacant and residents filed lawsuits because of poor conditions.
“The main thing is to make sure that people are aware of the state of public housing,” she said.
When Ouansafi became executive director of the Hawaii Public Housing Authority in 2011, the agency had more than 550 vacant units due to lack of upkeep even as thousands of low-income people were on a waiting list for a place to live.
Ouansafi couldn’t help but wonder how many of them might be willing to sign a waiver and move into a dilapidated unit. In many cases, he figured, it would still be a big improvement.
Now he realizes he was naïve and believes that such waivers would set a bad precedent.
Not to mention the fact that allowing people to live in substandard units could risk the agency’s funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which pays for all but 1.5 of the Housing Authority’s 300 staff positions.
“Their view is that when people are desperate, they will accept anything,” Ouansafi said of HUD. “It is a slippery slope for these folks.”
The authority estimates it will cost $9.5 million to repair the 175 units considered “vacant.” That doesn’t include site improvements that may be needed to meet federal standards, such as repairing parking lots, sidewalks and community rooms.
Ouansafi said that the agency inspects all of the units each year and holds about two dozen meetings a year to decide which ones to prioritize.
In addition to renovating vacant units, there’s a huge need to fix currently occupied units and ensure that they remain habitable.
Ouansafi said the agency is currently re-evaluating whether to continue its planned repairs of occupied units or shift the emphasis away from occupied units to vacant ones.
According to the Housing Authority’s chief planner, Dawn Takeuchi Apuna, the average age of a public housing development is 55 years.
“Generally, most of our properties are at or beyond their useful life, simply crumbling from failure of sewer, plumbing, electrical and structural systems,” Takeuchi Apuna wrote in an email.
At Kalihi Valley Homes, the Housing Authority has awarded contracts to renovate 18 empty units in buildings 19 and 20, but has been waiting 15 months for building permits.
The public housing complexes in Kauahale Ohana, Koolau Village and Hookipa Kahaluu on Oahu received their permits last month, a full year after the applications were submitted, Ouansafi said.
On Kauai, it’s taken about a year for five public housing projects to receive building permits. In Maui County, one project has waited 16 months for building permits.
Rod Antone, spokesman for Maui County, said that permitting wait times have improved over the past several years, but added that poor communication can still lengthen the process.
“Better communication between the applicant and the county (or between the applicant and its consultant) is needed to truly make the system more efficient,” he wrote in an email.
George Atta, who leads the Honolulu Department of Planning and Permitting, said in a phone interview that low-income housing developments can receive expedited permitting through Hawaii Revised Statutes 201H, which allows for exemptions related to zoning rules, height and density and other factors that could drive up the cost of a development.
But that law only applies to the Hawaii Housing Finance and Development Corporation, a separate state agency from the Housing Authority that loans money to developers to build low-income housing projects rather than managing or building its own projects.
It’s not unusual for building permits for large, complex projects to take up to a year to approve, Atta said in a follow-up email.
Atta explained the eight months that it took for Salt Lake Apartments to receive its building permit is comparable to similar private sector projects.
Ouansafi doesn’t think public housing projects should be treated the same way as for-profit projects. He said he has been talking to county council members and planning departments about the possibility of speeding up permits for state public housing by adopting ordinances that allow building permits for public housing projects to skip to the front of the line.
“We are a state agency that serves the poorest of the poor,” he said. “I don’t think our permits should be in line with all of the other permits.”
The Honolulu Department of Planning and Permitting has been working to speed up permitting in general by instituting a third-party review system, in which developers hire a certified reviewer to analyze permitting applications before they’re submitted, and limiting reviews of certain permit applications.
Atta said that although the Housing Authority can apply for exemptions, they are hard to grant because they often involve life-safety rules such as fire codes. Atta believes that more than permitting, strict codes have made fixing up units more time-consuming and expensive.
“All of these life safety things, which are good in and of themselves, they add costs to housing and they delay the reviews,” he said.
Hawaii’s homelessness crisis is forcing Ouansafi to get creative. Three years ago, he started a campaign called “I Have a Dream” in which volunteers cleaned up and helped renovate 150 units.
He said he has been talking to nonprofit organizations about a similar initiative, but has to be careful that it doesn’t violate any agreements with the unions. Labor agreements also have thwarted efforts to employ prisoners.
But the United Public Workers union has been working with Ouansafi to create a maintenance team made up of civil service workers that’s organized similarly to the exempt team, known as a “Special Team,” that was recently disbanded when the legislative authority expired.
The exempt team, which operated from July 2012 until this year, was made up of 36 workers with varying skill sets ranging from plumbing to carpentry who renovated units together.
Ouansafi said that method proved more efficient than the traditional practice, in which employees with different skill sets work separately and take turns fixing up units.
UPW Director Dayton Nakanelua signed a letter of agreement with Ouansafi to work with him to create the new Special Team made up of 56 multi-skilled workers. The Housing Authority is in the process of hiring for that effort. Nakanelua did not reply to a request for comment.
The new Special Team is considered a pilot project, but it won’t be terminated until the Housing Authority reorganizes its property management and maintenance services branches. Ouansafi estimates that won’t be completed for another two years.
Here’s the agreement between the Housing Authority and United Public Workers: