A federal investigation into the Hawaii Public Housing Authority has found widespread problems with units that are supposed to be accessible to disabled people.

Investigators from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development found more than 470 instances in which units and common spaces didn’t meet requirements for disability access, according to their preliminary findings.

The federal agency also found cases in which able-bodied people were living in units intended for disabled people.

Mayor Wright Public Housing located near Vineyard Honolulu, Hawaii. 31 jan 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
The Housing Authority settled a civil rights complaint last year related to a family seeking a unit in Mayor Wright to accommodate disabilities. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Hakim Ouansafi, the executive director of the Housing Authority, has appealed the preliminary findings and requested more information to verify them.

Ouansafi wrote in a letter to HUD that he takes the findings seriously and said the agency’s contractors who renovated the units were “shocked” by the findings and maintain that the units meet legal requirements. The Housing Authority spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on upgrades.

A spokesman for HUD said the agency does not comment on ongoing investigations and that the Housing Authority’s appeal is under review.

The Housing Authority has historically struggled to meet federal requirements. Public housing residents in Kuhio Park Terrace and Kuhio Homes settled a class-action case in 2011 against the state that resulted in repairs and accessibility upgrades, among other changes. Residents of the Mayor Wright housing complex separately sued and settled to obtain disability accommodations along with other improvements. Just last year, the Housing Authority settled a civil rights complaint with a family who sought disability accommodations in Mayor Wright.

Louis Erteschik, executive director of the Hawaii Disability Rights Center, filed the complaint that launched HUD’s investigation last year. He says he feels vindicated by HUD’s findings.

Louis Erteschik 1132 Bishop Street. 20 sept 2016
Louis Erteschik is an attorney at the Hawaii Disability Rights Center. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

One of his organization’s clients had vertigo and wanted an accessible unit on the first floor of the housing complex but was denied. Erteschik knows of another family who had a hard time getting a ground floor unit and had to carry their child up and down the stairs.

“That’s the kind of example that makes me think if in fact they had the number of units that they need, maybe people like that would get the housing that they’re looking for,” Erteschik said.

According to Ouansafi, there are 104 families waiting to transfer to an accessible unit. He said 40 percent of them have been offered a unit already but declined due to location or other reasons.

Hundreds Of Violations

In his complaint last year, Erteschik alleged that Hawaii Public Housing Authority didn’t have enough public housing units to meet federal requirements.

HUD found the Housing Authority designated the correct number of units to be accessible for disabled people, but that many of those units had “deficiencies and non-compliance features, therefore not fully meeting the definition of ‘accessible,'” the federal agency wrote in a letter to Erteschik and Ouansafi.

“HUD surveys identified and documented 471 non-compliant items in the interiors of designated units as well as in common areas, including ramps, designated accessible routes, accessible parking areas, public restrooms, and community centers,” HUD wrote.

“Similar non-compliance was found in newly renovated projects with alterations amounting to 75 percent or more of the replacement cost.”

Hawaii Public Housing Authority executive director Hakim Ouansafi says he recognizes the gravity of the issue and wants to verify HUD’s findings. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The investigators found that many of these deficiencies weren’t documented or addressed, and were not part of an ongoing self-evaluation process that the Housing Authority started in 2011.

In some cases, people living in the accessible units didn’t have disabilities, the preliminary report found.

“HUD surveys revealed poor and inappropriate utilization of accessible units in that many of the tenants residing in the designated units that HUD surveyed did not require the accessibility features of those units,” HUD said.

HUD recommended that the Housing Authority enter into a “voluntary compliance agreement,” which would involve surveying the units and upgrading them over a period of three years.

Questioning HUD’s Findings

Ouansafi wasn’t available for a phone interview on this subject but said in an email that he’s spoken to the agency’s contractors and they say HUD inspectors may have made a mistake.

“We also believe that the inspector was wrong to assume that just because the people who were present during the inspection didn’t show a visual disability, it does not mean that another member of family, who was not present at that moment of the inspection, wasn’t in need of such unit or they were granted a Reasonable Accommodation as mandated by law due to some unseen disability,” Ouansafi wrote.

He said the agency allows people who don’t have disabilities to occupy accessible units when there are no disabled people waiting for a unit.

Sarah Beamer, a planner at the Housing Authority, said in an email that only three of 372 in-service units were determined not to be accessible.

“We believe the surveys could have been conducted using current building codes rather than the existing codes at the time of construction, as well as simple error, and thus also necessitate scrutiny from within the HPHA office to ensure accuracy and immediate modification to units that are deficient,” she wrote.

Erteschik said he’s willing to wait for HUD’s findings to be verified, but he’s skeptical of the Housing Authority’s defense.

“I have a hard time believing that all 471 deficiencies were wrong,” he said.

Read HUD’s findings and the Housing Authority’s response below:

About the Author