Nearly 14,000 applicants for public housing in Hawaii must sign up online or risk losing their spot in line for one of about 6,100 federal and state-subsidized low-income housing units.

It’s an effort by the state’s Public Housing Authority to bring the wait list into the 21st century and make it easier for applicants to see their place on the list and update their contact information.

But critics worry the move could end up purging many applicants from the list, particularly those with disabilities, homeless people and immigrants who speak limited English. Some applicants have been waiting as long as 17 years.

Hawaii Public Housing Authority Executive Director Hakim Ouansafi says the change is intended to help people who are waiting for public housing, but some advocates fear it may do the opposite.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“It’s the tight timeline and it’s the idea that if you don’t do it, you’re off the wait list that’s really the sort of egregious thing,” said Lou Erteschik of the Hawaii Disability Rights Center. “People wait a long time for public housing. Being able to get public housing is a big deal.”

Public housing is intended as a safety net for Hawaii’s low-income residents. Rent is pegged to no more than 30% of tenants’ income, a lifeline for many in a city where the fair market rent for a two-bedroom exceeds $2,000.

Mayor Wright Housing.

A portion of the Mayor Wright public housing complex in Kalihi.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Hawaii Public Housing Authority Executive Director Hakim Ouansafi says the agency wants to help families, not cut them off. The initial notification letters were sent in March with an April 30 deadline. So far nearly 3,000 families have signed up successfully and about 2,800 letters were either returned undeliverable or recipients said they no longer needed housing.

“We really want to know who really wants housing,” Ouansafi said. “If they want it, they can stay on our list. If there’s 10,000 or 5,000 people on the wait list, it makes no difference to us. It actually gives us an accurate count of the community’s need.”

Both the Disability Rights Center and the Legal Aid Society of Hawaii complained to the Housing Authority after their clients raised concerns about the March letter. Now Ouansafi says the agency plans to send out a second letter to allow applicants who haven’t signed up yet another 30 days to comply.

Victor Castro-Rivera says he worries that other homeless people will not realize how important the Housing Authority’s correspondence is and may miss the deadline.

Anita Hofschneider/Civil Beat

That’s good news to Victor Castro-Rivera, 72, who says he has been waiting for public housing for 15 years.

Castro-Rivera got the letter from the Housing Authority in March but didn’t understand it because it was in English. After contacting Legal Aid, he got the letter translated into Spanish and signed up on the website.

He says he has been living on the streets of Honolulu since his Native Hawaiian wife died and he got evicted from her homestead property.

Now he worries other homeless people, especially immigrants like him, may not realize the letter is important. He wonders why letters from Social Security are sent to him in Spanish, but not this one. He questioned why the letter and its envelope did not include the word “urgent.”

“In truth, this is very important but nothing in the envelope says this is important to reading about your case,” he said through an interpreter. “It’s an injustice for the people who are living in Aala Park who don’t have access to interpretation.”

“The housing system,” he said, putting his hands over his eyes to indicate the agency is closing its eyes to the problems.

English-Only Website

The Housing Authority mailed 13,970 letters March 11 and 20 to applicants, telling them they would be removed from the wait list if they don’t sign up online by April 30.

The letter was written in English, and a second page included instructions in multiple languages saying to call a phone number in the letter if an interpreter was needed.

But the letter didn’t include a phone number.

“That definitely was an oversight,” Ouansafi said, adding that will be corrected in the second letter sent to applicants.

The Hawaii Public Housing Authority’s applicant portal has a dropdown menu for languages, but the only option is English.

Anita Hofschneider/Civil Beat

For people who did create accounts on the website, the applicant portal includes a dropdown menu for “Language.” But try typing in Spanish or Chuukese and nothing happens. The dropdown menu for “language” defaults to English.

Ouansafi says the Housing Authority is working on translating the website into multiple languages but until then applicants should come to the agency’s office for assistance with interpretation.

The Housing Authority has in-person interpreters for five languages and has access to additional interpreters, he says.

Jane Preece, an attorney at the Hawaii Disability Rights Center, says she worries about homeless people who may not be checking their mail every week and applicants who may not be familiar with computers.

“It’s a really short timeline given that you’re dealing with people who are the most disadvantaged and least likely to have access to internet and email,” Preece said.

A Possible Challenge

Ouansafi says the Housing Authority wants to make the process easier for applicants. As of last week, the agency helped 140 applicants who needed interpreter services and several more who were disabled or incarcerated and lacked access to a computer.

The new website would allow applicants to update their addresses and phone numbers online and make changes to their family sizes, which could affect which units they’re eligible for.

“They don’t have to come all the way to our office,” he said, adding the process is expected to save about 6,000 annual work hours.

Louis Erteschik 1132 Bishop Street. 20 sept 2016

Louis Erteschik from the Hawaii Disability Rights Center is concerned about whether the Public Housing Authority is giving applicants enough time and help to sign up on the agency’s new portal.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The Housing Authority will also reduce data entry errors by allowing applicants to update their own information, he said.

Dan O’Meara, managing attorney at the Legal Aid Society of Hawaii, says he was initially worried about the process but is pleased that the Housing Authority has agreed to extend the deadline to the end of May. Legal Aid is now collaborating with the Housing Authority on the draft of the second letter.

Erteschik from the Disability Rights Center says giving people more time to sign up is good, but he’s not sure if extending the deadline through May will be adequate. He said the center has considered filing a complaint with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development about the process.

“We’re certainly not taking that off the table if we’re not seeing the kinds of results and action that needs to happen to satisfy our concerns,” Erteschik said.

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