HILO, Hawaii – The rebuilding of a long-decrepit public housing complex is nearly complete after the cleanup of harmful contaminants the state found where 16 new low-income apartments now sit near downtown Hilo.

The Hawaii Public Housing Authority hopes families will begin living in the Lanakila Homes’ four-building complex soon after the scheduled November completion date, said Benjamin Park, an agency planner.

Built under a $5.9 million construction contract, the project has dragged since it was first awarded state funding in 2013.

“Construction officially commenced on March 31, 2017, however there was a delay due to the discovery of contaminated soils,” Park said in an email. “A Removal Action Work Plan was approved by the Department of Health, and the contaminated soil was encapsulated and relocated on site.”

When it opens in November, this 16-unit, low-income housing complex will satisfy about 5% of the people on a Hilo waiting list. Jason Armstrong/Civil Beat

Big Island state Sen. Kai Kahele,  who has a family connection to Lanakila Homes, also known as Lanakila Housing, said he’s satisfied it won’t pose health risks like the ones that may have harmed his late father.

“I feel extremely confident that the housing site is safe for the families to live there,” said Kahele.

Kahele has monitored the project since helping his father, then-state Sen. Gil Kahele, with rebuilding efforts undertaken early this decade.

“It does have a very personal connection to our family because my dad grew up there in Lanakila Housing in the 1950s,” Kai Kahele said. “It’s very important and personal to us.”

The elder Kahele died of leukemia in 2016 age 73. Decades earlier, he had lived as a child on the same state land that was treated as recently as this year for arsenic and other dangerous contaminants. A warning remains posted at the construction site.

State Sen. Kai Kahele said the site of the renovated Lanakila Homes is safe, even though this warning sign was posted near the entrance to the construction site as recently as August 18. Jason Armstrong/Civil Beat

“I always just wondered if the arsenic (exposure) in the early part of his life played a role,” Kai Kahele said.

Despite his assurance of safety, a sign posted outside the construction site as recently as Aug. 18 warned of “lead, arsenic and termiticide contaminated soil” and not to “eat, drink or smoke in this area.” Construction workers seen during a July visit were not wearing any protective breathing devices and appeared to be dressed for normal working conditions.

Lorna Abran, who has lived in Lanakila Homes for several years, said she pays $462 a month for the two-bedroom apartment shared with her mother, for whom she serves as caregiver. She no longer worries about soil contamination, but did emphasize that the background, or more specifically the birthplace, of her new neighbors is important.

“I just hope some local people get it – who really need it,” Abran said.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development sets rent amounts based on a maximum of 30 percentage of an applicant’s income. For Hawaii County, that yearly income limit cannot exceed $62,800 for a family of four. Those chosen “in general may stay in public housing as long as you comply with the lease,” according to HUD’s website.

The new two-bedroom Lanakila apartments certainly will be welcomed, and likely life changing, for the men, women and children who will call them home.

But there are far more residents still seeking housing.

“There are approximately 300 families on the waitlist for East Hawaii Federal Family Low-Income Public Housing Hilo,” Park said.

That’s more than double the 144 families he said now reside at the entire Lanakila property located about a mile from both downtown and the University of Hawaii Hilo campus.

Given Hilo’s need for affordable housing, the 16 new units are “definitely not enough to satisfy that demand. That is clear,” said Kahele.

He was familiar with the housing authority’s waitlist, which reportedly has as many as 360 families on it.

Kahele said $2.5 million has been earmarked for soil treatment in the next phase of the Lanakila Homes rebuilding effort.

That’s not the only ongoing construction project aimed at helping meet Hilo’s need for affordable housing.

Low-income seniors will benefit from 92 housing units being added to Hilo’s 90-unit Mohouli Heights Senior Neighborhood. The $38 million expansion is scheduled for completion next fall. Jason Armstrong/Civil Beat

Located about a mile from Lanakila, 92 senior housing units are being built as the third phase of the Mohouli Heights Senior Neighborhood, a $38 million project slated to be finished next fall.

The housing complex now has 90 units, all built since its 2013 opening. Residency is limited to low-income seniors at least 62 years old who qualify for Section 8 federal housing aid.

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