The Hawaii Public Housing Authority has agreed to upgrade living units to meet accessibility standards, resolving a federal investigation that unearthed hundreds of violations last year.

The U.S. Housing and Urban Development investigated the Housing Authority in response to a complaint filed two years ago by Louis Erteschik, head of the Hawaii Disability Rights Center.

Representatives from HUD, the Housing Authority and the Disability Rights Center signed a voluntary compliance agreement this month that lays out a three-year process for evaluating and upgrading public housing units to ensure they meet federal regulations.

Hawaii Public Housing Authority executive director Hakim Ouansafi says the feds are wrong in their findings but decided to settle anyway to save the public money. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Although he signed the settlement, Housing Authority executive director Hakim Ouansafi maintains that federal investigators used the wrong standard to evaluate compliance. Hawaii public housing units were built in compliance with the 2010 American Disabilities Act Standard for Accessible Design, Ounsafi said, while HUD investigators relied upon Uniform Federal Accessibility Standards.

Ouansafi said he decided to sign the plan rather than contest the findings in court in order to save taxpayer money.

“This agreement, there is actually nothing there that makes us do more than what we were doing in the beginning,” he said.

“There’s nothing that the Disability Center did other than delay us. There’s absolutely nothing positive that came out of their complaint,” Ouansafi said. “We would have been done with the survey right now if it wasn’t for their delays.”

Erteschik from the Disability Rights Center takes the opposite view. He said the Housing Authority has been out of compliance with federal rules regarding accessibility for the past decade and the agreement is a significant step forward.

“Until we filed this action, nobody has ever undertaken a systemic approach to the public housing system here in Hawaii,” Erteschik said.

Lawsuits about a decade ago targeted poor conditions in large housing projects, but not housing units statewide. Erteschik said the agreement will result in more units for low-income people who are disabled.

“Clearly there’s people on the streets there, you see they’re in wheelchairs, they probably would qualify for public housing,” he said. “It shows you that we have the need.

Three Years To Comply

Jelani Madaraka, a HUD official who works on fair housing issues and investigated the Housing Authority, said he was not allowed to comment on the agreement and referred questions to Eduardo Cabrera, HUD public information officer.

Cabrera said that HUD officials surveyed 192 units in more than 32 projects in all four counties and found 471 instances of noncompliance. The investigation also  “revealed underutilization of accessible units by people with disabilities,” he said.

“It’s important to note that this was a voluntary compliance agreement,” Cabrera said. “To the credit of the Housing Authority they are cooperating and they’ve agreed to a variety of requirements.”

The agreement sets out a three-year timeline for compliance beginning with a survey of the public housing stock. The Housing Authority will have six months to hire a consultant to conduct “needs assessments.” The agency also must survey its accessible units and use the information from the surveys and assessment to create self-evaluation and transition plans.

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

The Housing Authority will have three years to fix units and common areas that are supposed to be accessible, and must give HUD quarterly progress reports.

If the Housing Authority doesn’t comply with the terms of the settlement, HUD may suspend employees, withhold federal funding or even sue the state agency.

Ouansafi said he doesn’t expect to have to go to the Legislature for additional money to comply because the Housing Authority was already planning to conduct a survey and make improvements.

He said the Housing Authority contracts for accessible housing conformed with ADA standards and the difference between UFAS standards was in some cases negligible.

Erteschik praised HUD investigators and noted the agreement includes stringent monitoring requirements and consequences for lack of compliance.

“It’s not like we brought this just to be difficult for the Housing Authority,” he said. “We are here to represent people with disabilities and their needs.”

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