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When Damon Gibson moved into a small apartment complex on Pensacola Street in Makiki, he noticed the house next door had a few refrigerators strewn in the yard alongside piles of gallon buckets with the Aloha Shoyu label.
Now, more than 20 years later, when Gibson looks at the borderless property line between his apartment and the house on the 1400 block of Pensacola Street a wall of trash meets his gaze. Vines weave through abandoned cars and over old fish tanks, grills and coolers piling up around the house.
Rumors fly among Makiki residents about the Pensacola Street house and its enigmatic owner, Rollin Yee. And those rumors have helped fuel some neighbor’s frustration over the pace of getting the place cleaned up.
Honolulu’s Department of Planning and Permitting has been taking steps against the owner and moving toward removing the mess. Honolulu’s housing code prohibits houses like these, which cause a public nuisance and pose fire, health and safety hazards.
The Makiki/ Lower Punchbowl/ Tantalus Neighborhood Board has also put the issue on its agenda for the last six months, says Richard Kawano, a member of the board.
“At this point the health and safety of the community overrides the rights of the certain individual that owns the place,” Kawano said. “If someone throws a cigarette into it, it’ll take that house and the house next to it.”
In January, Guy Kaulukukui, who represents Mayor Kirk Caldwell at the Makiki neighborhood meetings, told the board that DPP issued a notice of violation to the homeowner.
The violations continued, Kaulukukui said, so DPP began issuing fines and seeking a court order that would allow clean up crews to enter the property and remove the trash.
The department can issue daily fines until the mess is cleared or until the city is granted access to the property. Hawaii News Now reported in August that the homeowner faces over $300,000 in fines.
“I feel badly for the neighbors,” said Honolulu City Councilwoman Ann Kobayashi, who represents Makiki. “Hopefully there’ll be a nice ending to this before there’s a tragedy like a fire.”
The city planning department told Civil Beat that no department officials were available for an interview.
Rocky Santos has lived next door to the house for 30 years. He remembers a brief period when the trash pile was less intense, but for most of the time he’s lived here it’s looked like it does now.
“It bothers me, but what can you do?” Santos said.
District or Circuit Court judges can issue the city a warrant to enter a property and “abate a public nuisance” thanks to a 2014 bill introduced by Kobayashi and Councilwoman Carol Fukunaga.
The city must warn the property owner in advance. If the owner cannot be located, the city must publish a notice in the newspaper once a week for two weeks.
Kobayashi said the law allowed the city to clear out a house on Second Avenue in Kaimuki that was known to neighbors as “hoarders” or “the stinky house with all the bugs,” according to testimony for the bill.
Blanche Chang, secretary to Kathy Sokugawa, the acting director of DPP, wrote in an email that the Kaimuki house was the only other hoarder house that the department has identified on the island in the last four years.
Kobayashi mentioned a house on 10th Avenue in Kaimuki where an older man lived and allowed trash to build up. When he died, his daughter returned to Oahu to clean up the house, Kobayashi said.
“He wasn’t well,” she said. “We hated to issue citations.”
The American Psychiatric Association categorizes hoarding as a form of obsessive compulsive disorder. According to APA research, hoarding disorder occurs in 2 percent to 6 percent of the population and is more common among people who are 55 or older.
“These hoarders like the one in Kaimuki, they eat the plate lunch and they save the box, they eat an apple and they save the core,” Kobayashi said. “They just don’t want to throw anything away.”
Alvin Yee, the homeowner’s brother, said he has tendencies similar to his brother and can barely move around in his own house. Rollin’s extreme living conditions in Makiki have inspired Alvin to downsize.
“To me all my stuff is good stuff, but of course that’s what all hoarders say,” Alvin Yee said. “It looks like trash to everyone else.”
Rollin Yee is in his 60s and grew up in the house along with three brothers, according to Alvin Yee. He said Rollin Yee still lives in the house.
“He just doesn’t want to get rid of anything,” Alvin said of his brother
He added that neighbors and strangers dump their own junk on the property and it’s not uncommon for people to break into the house.
Trash from the Makiki house leans on a fence along David Reeves’ backyard. Reeves has lived next to the house for almost two years, but plans to move out in part because of the trouble his neighbor has caused him.
“I don’t use the back yard because of it,” he said.
Once, buckets and trash fell from the house into Reeves’ yard. Reeves he put the trash on the sidewalk in front of his house for curbside trash pickup. Trash collected didn’t end up disposing of the objects, Reeves said, because someone moved the stuff into back into the hoarder house property.
The area is a haven for mosquitos, rats and feral cats. Six months ago, Reeves to reach out to local news outlets, hoping publicity would trigger more action to clean up the mess.
“For him, that’s the only home he’s ever known,” Alvin Yee said of his brother. “Unfortunately, he’s probably attached to all that stuff.”