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Lawyers and advocates for the disabled say public housing in Hawaii falls woefully short when it comes to providing enough housing that is accessible to those in wheelchairs and who need special accommodations.
Now, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is investigating a complaint that Hawaii’s public housing authority doesn’t provide enough units that are accessible to disabled people.
“We have a lot of people in this state who have physical disabilities and qualify and need public housing,” said Louis Erteschik, executive director at the Hawaii Disability Rights Center, who filed the complaint in July.
But because the housing authority doesn’t have enough accessible units, people simply can’t get housed, he said.
“It may be that some of these people may be forced to be homeless while they’re waiting for public housing to come through,” Erteschik said.
Federal law requires that the state public housing authority set aside at least 5 percent of units that were built or substantially renovated after 1988 for people who have mobility impairments. In newly built federally assisted housing, another 2 percent of units must be accessible to people who are deaf or blind.
Most of the state’s public housing units were built prior to 1988 and it’s unclear what percentage of them would fall under this requirement.
Erteschik based his complaint on a February letter from the Hawaii Public Housing Authority that indicated fewer than 2 percent of Hawaii’s total public housing stock is currently accessible to disabled people.
Erteschik’s organization is a federally designated nonprofit agency that’s charged with protecting the rights of people with disabilities. His July 14 complaint to HUD urged the department to investigate the issue and order the state housing authority to comply with federal law.
But Hakim Ouansafi, executive director of the Hawaii Public Housing Authority, said the figures cited in the complaint are outdated because the agency has been in the process of verifying its accessible housing stock and modifying units.
He said that as of Sept. 9, the agency had 251 accessible units out of 5,926, or 4.2 percent of all units, and is working on developing or modifying over 100 additional units.
Just five years ago, the agency had only 93 accessible units, Ouansafi said.
But other advocates say the problems for people with disabilities who need accessible public housing persist.
Two families living in public housing filed separate complaints with the state Civil Rights Commission earlier this year alleging that the housing authority is violating federal law that prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities.
Both families have waited more than a year for the agency to take action on their requests to move to accessible units, according to their attorney, Randy Compton from the nonprofit Medical-Legal Partnership for Children in Hawaii.
Ouansafi declined to comment on the pending cases but said the housing authority has completed 264 reasonable accommodation transfers.
Compton said in a phone interview that his clients were not willing to speak with the media. But he contended their situation is not unique.
“I’ve lost count of how many potential clients that have come to us who have some sort of disability and need some sort of accommodation but for some reason or another can’t make the request, or if they have made the request nothing is done about it,” he said.
The 32-year-old attorney said he understands the housing authority has relatively few units compared with the need, and that it’s working under a very limited budget.
“But the kind of stories that I hear from clients and potential clients is that a lot of people do have legitimate disabilities and when they try to advocate for themselves, without our intervention, it’s extremely difficult to get any progress,” he said.
The issue is familiar to Gavin Thornton, an attorney and executive director at the Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice.
The nonprofit law firm filed a federal lawsuit against the housing authority in 2011 alleging that the agency created hazardous conditions for people with disabilities living at Mayor Wright Homes, a project in Kalihi.
“It’s been a recurring issue for years,” said Thornton, “just the lack of a sufficient number of accessible units, so I’m not terribly surprised that the problem still exists.”
“When the poorest people don’t have access to the housing that is the most affordable, they end up in places that are bad for them and very expensive to the taxpayers.” — Michael Allen, attorney
Among other issues, Kazner Alexander, one of the plaintiffs in the case, requested to be transferred to a ground floor unit but his concerns were ignored, the complaint alleged.
But the Appleseed Center’s lawsuit was never certified as a class action so even though the concerns of the three plaintiffs were addressed through a subsequent settlement, the remedies didn’t necessarily apply to the entire project, Thornton said.
Appleseed filed a separate state lawsuit that alleged the conditions at Mayor Wright violated health and safety standards. The state settled for $350,000 and spent more than $5 million upgrading the 364-unit project, including rebuilding sidewalks to make them wheelchair-accessible.
“I’ve been pretty impressed by the progress that’s been made in recent years (to renovate Mayor Wright) but it’s definitely not all fixed and that probably hits folks with disabilities especially hard,” Thornton said.
Erteschik said that lack of accessible units has been a problem at Hawaii Public Housing Authority even prior to the Appleseed Center’s case. He provided data indicating that less than 3 percent of units were accessible to disabled people in November 2007.
Ouansafi said his agency has spent $52.2 million over the past five years to upgrade units to ensure that they are accessible to disabled people. That involves improving walkways and elevators, not just individual units, he said.
All of the housing authority’s elevators are accessible, he added.
The state money “went a long way to achieving what we are today,” he said, noting that the housing authority only received $41.2 million in federal funding over the past five years for capital improvement projects.
In addition, the agency is in the process of reviewing 39 units to ensure that they meet accessibility standards, and has already awarded contracts to improve another 68 units.
Once that work is completed, more than 5 percent of the agency’s units will be accessible, Ouansafi said.
The agency is also working to increase the number of units for people who are deaf or blind. Ouansafi said there are 77 units for people with sensory disabilities — 1.2 percent of the total housing stock — and 20 more units are under contract to be developed.
He said the agency is about to enter into another contract to upgrade another 30 units.
Ouansafi said his goal is to ensure that 15 percent of the public housing stock is accessible for disabled people given Hawaii’s aging population. But it could take up to two years for all of the current contracts to be completed.
Many cities and counties have struggled to provide accessible units in affordable housing, according to Washington, D.C.-based attorney Michael Allen. And while it may be expensive to upgrade aging units, the lawsuits prompted by lack of compliance can be costly, too.
Just two weeks ago, Allen reached a $200 million settlement in a lawsuit against Los Angeles. That’s the most expensive settlement ever regarding disability accommodations in affordable housing, Allen said in a phone interview.
Baltimore was similarly sued in 2002 for failing to provide enough accessible units and was still struggling to provide the units as recently as last fall, according to the Baltimore Sun.
The agency was supposed to provide hundreds of accessible units but only provided 14, Allen said.
Erteschik said his organization considered filing a lawsuit in Hawaii but decided to seek an administrative solution in the hopes of resolving the problem faster. He hasn’t ruled out the possibility of litigation if his complaint to HUD doesn’t produce results.
Apart from avoiding costly settlements, there are other reasons that taxpayers should care whether the housing authority is providing enough accessible units, Allen said.
“When the poorest people don’t have access to the housing that is the most affordable, they end up in places that are bad for them and very expensive to the taxpayers,” he said, such as nursing homes and homeless shelters.
Allen noted that the requirement to provide accessible units has been on the books for decades.
“Whether it’s the public housing agency itself or whether it’s the state Legislature that undoubtedly will have to have a hand in financing some of the fixes here … the lesson is that disability access is a civil right,” he said. “It’s just better practice all the way around to attend to the accessibility requirements in your initial planning stages and that you maintain those units as accessible throughout their useful life.”
Read the Hawaii Disability Rights Center’s complaint below: