Gov. David Ige has promised to help subsidize rents for seniors at a rental housing complex in Kakaako, temporarily allaying fears of displacement for dozens of residents.

But there’s a lot of ambiguity about how that will work, and a lot of distrust of Mark Development, the company that owns the property.

Janet Hughes, 82, has lived in Na Lei Hulu Kupuna for eight years after retiring from working at the YMCA. Standing outside the governor’s office Wednesday, she said Ige’s announcement makes her feel hopeful. Yet she’s still skeptical.

“We got to see it in writing before I can believe,” she says. Hughes can’t remember her exact income but says it’s about $40,000 pre-tax, making her one of the wealthiest residents in the development. Her rent was scheduled to jump from $675 currently to more than $1,000 per month next year.

Na Lei Hulu Kupuna resident Damiana Vierra tells Governor Ige that if the rent becomes higher she wont be able to afford her unit and will be homeless.
Na Lei Hulu Kupuna resident Damiana Vierra, 89, tells Gov. David Ige that she fears becoming homeless if her rent goes up. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

But rising rents extend a lot farther than Na Lei Hulu Kupuna.

Hawaii is home to a relatively large elderly population, and many are on fixed incomes. Seniors have to contend not only with expensive rents but also the rising cost of food and medical care.

At the city’s West Loch Elderly Housing Project, rents for poor seniors rose 5 percent last year and another 5 percent this year, while rents for better-off seniors grew 10 percent and 5 percent.

Pohulani Senior, a state-run project, saw 2 percent rent increases last year and will continue to see 2 percent increases annually.

Correction: An earlier version of this story based on information from a state housing agency said Pohulani Senior tenants had a 3 percent rent increase last year.

In Manoa, Honolulu City Councilwoman Ann Kobayashi is holding a meeting for tenants next week at Manoa Gardens, a mix of low-income, moderate-income and market-rate housing for seniors in her district.

Rent increases by the new property manager, EAH Housing, have ranged from 2 percent for people in the lowest income brackets to 10 percent and 5 percent over the past two years for market-rate units.

Kobayashi is happy with Ige’s suggestion for Na Lei Hulu Kupuna and plans to look at state and federal funding to help Manoa seniors afford the rent increases.

“At that age they need to have security instead of worrying about where they might live next year,” Kobayashi says. “These people worked all their lives and now’s the time to relax and enjoy life and they’re having to worry about where they might live next year.”

What Ige Is Going To Do

Seniors at Na Lei Hulu Kupuna heard about planned rental increases last month and protested last week.

The news struck a nerve with many in part because the housing complex is located in Kakaako, a fast-gentrifying district where the state has recently approved the construction of many new high-end condominiums.

The proposed rent increases were sharp. The tenants with the highest incomes paying $675 would start paying more than $1,000; some with subsidized rents around $500 would go up to $916; others paying even less would go up to just over $700.

Craig Watase, who leads Mark Development, said he would subsidize everyone but the wealthiest residents throughout 2018. But he couldn’t guarantee what would happen after that.

Seniors at Na Lei Hulu Kupuna in Kakaako protest proposed rent increases. Anita Hofschneider/Civil Beat

Watase recently bought the building from the state and Bank of Hawaii, and the state and city still own the land underneath.

He said in an interview that his land lease is about a $1 a year and he recently received about $3 million from the city to refurbish the property. He added the building currently has a positive cash flow but higher rents are needed to help pay for repairs.

His purchase of the building helps ensure the rents remain relatively low for the next 60 years. But he’s also allowed to increase rents to federally approved limits for publicly funded senior housing.

Watase said Wednesday the governor provided a much-needed long-term solution to soothe seniors’ anxieties.

Ige plans to direct the head of a state housing agency to come up with a plan to use money from the Rental Assistance Housing Fund to subsidize seniors at Na Lei Hulu Kupuna.

The plan so far involves providing a maximum of $250 per month per tenant as a subsidy for the next 15 years.

Na Lei Hulu Kupuna residents and supporters hold signs fronting their housing complex located in Kakaako.
Na Lei Hulu Kupuna residents and supporters hold signs in front of their housing complex in Kakaako. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Ige said the money would only go to current renters of the housing complex who are already receiving rental assistance. The details are still ambiguous though, and the governor says they need to be fleshed out.

The protests against rent increases at Na Lei Hulu Kupuna come during a tough time for Ige, who is running for re-election against well-known opponents like Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa. During his successful 2014 campaign, Ige slammed high rents in Kakaako, and has made providing affordable housing a big part of his agenda.

He may have helped his image Wednesday — seniors leaving his office said Ige seemed sincere. But one question is what this means for other renters facing a similar situation.

In response to a question from a TV reporter, the governor said he would “absolutely” be willing to come up with a similar solution for other seniors facing sharp rent increases.

Confusion And Anxiety

Earlier Wednesday morning, seniors sat in the recreational room of Na Lei Hulu Kupuna eating a Valentine’s Day brunch of white rice, Portuguese sausage, scrambled eggs and ketchup from a nearby restaurant.

Pink and red streamers hung from the ceiling and flowers decorated the folding tables.

Despite the celebratory decor, the mood was anxious. The seniors were wondering what would happen after the developer subsidy ran out.

“OK everybody, die!” joked one silver-haired resident. The anxiety was worse because of the confusion about the rent increases. The developer sent the kupuna multiple letters, each raising more questions. The latest letter invited the residents to Ige’s press conference.

Kakaako Na Lei Hulu Kupuna residents listen to center, Developer Craig Watase and right Governor Ige's Chief of Staff, Mike McCartney discuss arrangements being made to assist residents.
Mike McCartney, Gov. David Ige’s chief of staff, right, and developer Craig Watase discuss arrangements being made to assist residents. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

But residents woke up to signs posted Wednesday telling them not to go because there wasn’t enough room. Some thought it was cancelled.

Around 10:45 a.m., representatives from the governor’s office, Mark Development and Rep. Mark Hashem arrived and spent more than half an hour in the management office talking about the situation in private before addressing the residents.

“This is my home,” said Deborah Eharis, 64, on the verge of tears. “I’m scared of that rent.”

“We don’t want you to worry anymore,” said Mike McCartney, the governor’s chief of staff. He offered to bring the governor, House Speaker Scott Saiki and Sen. Brickwood Galuteria to meet with them.

But he couldn’t say when.

Watase from Mark Development asked residents to trust him. “There’s nothing sinister going on here,” he said. “We are going to take care of you guys.”

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