The Hawaii Public Housing Authority is revamping its policies for providing translation and interpretation services for thousands of residents after settling a discrimination case brought by an immigrant couple.

Valantin Sirom and Sasinta Seremea filed a complaint at the state Civil Rights Commission last summer when they were evicted from public housing after two hearings in which the Housing Authority did not provide an interpreter.

The Legal Aid Society of Hawaii, which represented the couple, contended the Housing Authority discriminated against them based on their national origin by not providing a free interpreter or translating important documents, including a notice that they had the right to an interpreter.

A Housing Authority board voted to evict Sirom and Seremea last summer, but dismissed their eviction last September after the Legal Aid Society interceded.

It’s been 10 years since Hawaii established a law saying that most residents who speak limited English are entitled to free interpreters at government agencies, and translation of vital documents like eviction notices.

Valantin Sirom and Sasinta Seremea, in red, sit with their attorney and interpreter at the Legal Aid Society in downtown Honolulu.
Attorney Reyna Ramolete, top left; public housing resident Valantin Sirom, top right; his wife Sasinta Seremea, bottom left; and fair housing outreach specialist and interpreter Emmie Suzuki-Phillip, bottom right, at the Legal Aid Society in downtown Honolulu. Anita Hofschneider/Civil Beat

But despite the state law, as well as a similar federal requirement under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, state and county agencies have struggled to comply:

  • Three years ago, a nonprofit advocacy group sued the state Department of Transportation for failing to translate driver’s license tests into Chuukese, Marshallese and Ilocano. The state settled the lawsuit last year and now offers the test in 13 languages.
  • Numerous complaints about lack of language interpretation at the Hawaii State Judiciary prompted a federal review, which resulted in staff training, new department policies and an improved website.
  • Last fall, the American Civil Liberties Union sued the City and County of Honolulu for violating the civil rights of homeless people while conducting sweeps. As part of the lawsuit, the ACLU alleged the city failed to translate notices in violation of the state language access law.

Language Access

In this case, the Hawaii Public Housing Authority failed to let Sirom and Seremea know that they were legally entitled to a free interpreter at two hearings regarding their eviction last year, the Legal Aid Society claimed.

The state language access law doesn’t include any penalties for violations or any way for individuals to sue if the law is violated. That’s why Legal Aid attorney Reyna Ramolete filed a fair housing complaint alleging Sirom and Seremea were discriminated against due to their national origin.

The Housing Authority said in an email that the agency did not admit liability in settling the case, and noted that it sometimes settles cases to save taxpayer money.

As part of the settlement, the agency must pay Sirom and Seremea $2,000. It also must adopt a language access plan that includes staff training and new procedures for communicating with people of limited English proficiency.

For example, eviction notices must now be accompanied by a form that’s translated into commonly spoken languages explaining the option to have a free interpreter.

The new policies apply to more than 13,000 public housing residents who reside in more than 6,100 units.

“The settlement should serve as a reminder that state and federal fair housing laws prohibit discrimination on the basis of national origin or ancestry and that both Legal Aid and HPHA can play important roles in protecting against discrimination,” said William Hoshijo, executive director of the state Civil Rights Commission.

 “Please Give Us A Chance”

Sirom and Seremea moved to Hawaii from Chuuk in 2008, seeking medical care and better education for their children, they told Civil Beat through an interpreter.

Sirom works as a security guard, and Seremea is a janitor at Waikiki hotels. In 2011, they moved into public housing in Makiki, where they lived without incident until last year.

That’s when their teenage daughter’s boyfriend showed up drunk and got into a fight with their neighbors, Sirom and Seremea said.

Soon after, they received a notice written in English saying that they had violated the Housing Authority’s rules and could be evicted.

They also received a piece of paper explaining — in English — the option to have an interpreter at a grievance hearing. That same notice said that under state law, children under the age of 18 cannot serve as interpreters.

Seremea and Sirom said they didn’t understand the notices. Seremea signed the form waiving her right to an interpreter because she thought she would have to pay for an interpreter to be provided.

Despite the law against children serving as interpreters, she and her husband brought their 17-year-old daughter to the grievance hearing to help translate for them.

During a subsequent eviction hearing, Seremea and Sirom appeared before the board with no interpreter. Sirom said in an interview with Civil Beat he couldn’t fully express his side of the story, simply telling the board, “Please give us a chance.”

Last summer, the eviction board ruled against them and gave them 30 days to move out.

In a statement to Civil Beat, the Housing Authority declined to discuss what happened to Sirom and Seremea.

“The HPHA will not comment on the specifics of the case in order to preserve some semblance of confidentiality for the family (who are still our tenants), except to say that their summary does not provide an entirely accurate account of how the case unfolded, and the HPHA will not relitigate this case in the press,” the agency said in a statement. “We can say, however, that our staff work diligently and the HPHA annually spends thousands of dollars in translation services and interpreters for both tenants and applicants.”

Perennially Underfunded

Former Gov. Linda Lingle signed the state’s language access law in 2006 with a promise: “We’re committed to making certain that the bill is implemented so that everyone who needs service is not kept out because they can’t communicate or understand English,” she said.

The new law was especially important given the significant percentage of Hawaii residents who speak a language other than English at home. A recent state report relying on Census data found that one-fourth of Hawaii households speak a language other than English at home. Some 19 percent of those people, or about 62,000 residents, said they speak English “not well” or “not at all.”

Hawaii residents who don’t speak English well are more likely to be in low-paying service-industry jobs and may need to rely on government services like public housing. The state report found the median income for a Hawaii resident who doesn’t speak English well was $29,000, compared to $40,000 for a resident who spoke English very well.

But despite the recognition of the need for language access, budget cuts have left the state Office of Language Access cash-strapped. Executive Director Helena Manzano said the agency is made up of just three people, but it is supposed to have 11.

The office is mainly focused on providing education and outreach to state and county departments, Manzano said. She and the agency’s legal analyst, Becky Gardner, conduct training with government workers to teach them about the law, such as the requirement for each department to have a language access plan.

Manzano said that her office is looking to increase its compliance monitoring, but that’s tough without additional resources. She’s not sure whether all state agencies have updated language access plans.

The office itself receives few complaints. Many people are not aware that they have the right to an interpreter or translation services, and even if they are, they’re afraid to file a complaint out of fear of retaliation, said Gardner.

Even advocates for people with limited English proficiency may decline to file complaints because they don’t want to disrupt their relationships with employees at state agencies, Gardner said.

And when complaints are filed, the office doesn’t have any mechanism to levy fines or enforce the law.

Instead, the agency seeks to informally resolve issues. If a government department is resistant, the office’s only option is to write a report, Gardner said.

“There is some bureaucracy involved but on consequences, the statute is silent,” she said.

Not The First Time

It’s not the first time that the Housing Authority ran into this issue. In 2009, two people who were part of Legal Aid’s fair housing tester program called the Housing Authority and were allegedly unable to receive services.

Audinette Pierre, who spoke French, and Joaquin Villarreal, who spoke Spanish, separately called the Housing Authority seeking services and contended that Housing Authority staffers hung up on them.

As part of a 2011 Civil Rights Commission settlement in which the Housing Authority admitted no wrongdoing, the agency paid $1,000 to Pierre and Villarreal.

The agency agreed to a multi-page policy for providing language access, including staff training and a promise to translate vital documents into languages spoken by at least 5 percent of the Housing Authority’s residents.

The requirements of the latest settlement are much more extensive. When sending letters that could affect tenants’ ability to remain in housing, the Housing Authority must include a form explaining that the notice is important, translated into commonly used languages.

If a resident has waived the right to an interpreter, the Housing Authority must review the waiver with the resident during a hearing to ensure that it’s understood.

The Housing Authority has already conducted staff training on the state language access law and fair housing.

Progress reports are due to the Civil Rights Commission in December 2016 and July 2017.

“Happiest Day”

The days before and after the eviction decision were filled with stress and worry, Seremea said. Every day her children asked her, “What are we going to do? Where are we going to live?” she recalled through an interpreter.

She and Sirom spent months looking for a new place to live but couldn’t find anywhere they could afford. One day in June, they were walking around downtown Honolulu looking for an apartment when they saw a sign saying, “Legal Aid” on Bethel Street.

In desperation, they asked for help, Seremea said through an interpreter. Their conversation with a Legal Aid attorney was the first time they realized they had the right to a free interpreter during their eviction hearing, she said.

They sought and received a third hearing in September. Represented by a Legal Aid attorney and helped by an interpreter, the couple explained that their daughter’s boyfriend who caused trouble had not been invited, and that their daughter had asked him to leave.

The board ruled that there was insufficient evidence to evict them. Seremea described that as the “happiest day.”

Sirom said he’s very thankful for the result and is grateful to the Housing Authority and Legal Aid. He’s happy that there are going to be changes and hopes they help other people, he said through an interpreter.

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