Rarely do we respond to editorial articles, as we seriously value the perspective of others and use them as a way to further improve the operations of the Hawaii Public Housing Authority.

NOTE: pick the correct link

However, when I read Honolulu Civil Beat’s Sept. 6 column — “The Big Loss Of A Small Garden” — I felt compelled to respond because of the erroneous and unapprised suggestion by columnist Sterling Higa that the HPHA has rules that are outdated, and it would be “Better to act in the spirit rather than the letter of the law.”

The HPHA is the only statewide Public Housing Agency for the state of Hawaii, and one of the largest PHAs in the country. The HPHA’s portfolio consists of 5,406 U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development subsidized public housing units on Oahu, Maui, Molokai, Hawaii, and Kauai.

The Kalakaua Homes, Makua Alii and Paoakalani properties mentioned in the article contain 583 family and elderly public housing units.

The HPHA’s public servants spend their days serving the most vulnerable of our community by providing safe, decent and sanitary housing, and it personally affects everyone who works at the HPHA when articles are put forth that provide the wrong impression about our service.

The federal public housing program is limited to low-income families and individuals, and allows participants to pay 30% of their income to live at the HPHA’s properties at rents they can afford, where the difference in rent is subsidized by the taxpayers through HUD.

That being said, in order to continue to house approximately 40,000 people in our programs and receive crucial federal subsidies, the HPHA must follow the federal Real Estate Assessment Center’s Physical Assessment Sub System physical inspection process and other HUD requirements for all federal properties, like the one listed in the article.

Safety concerns at the garden at Makua Alii Senior Center, as detailed by the Hawaii Public Housing Authority. The original photo came from Sterling Higa. HPHA

These laws and rules are created to ensure safe, decent and affordable housing, to uphold the public trust and to identify fraud, abuse and waste of federal resources and taxpayer dollars.

If an HPHA property fails an inspection, HUD demands that the HPHA correct any violations and develop a corrective plan to address all reported poor housing conditions. If the HPHA does not or cannot correct these failing housing conditions, HUD would enforce its Annual Contributions Contract with the HPHA and our federal public housing program could be in jeopardy.

The removal of the plantings referred to in the article was deemed necessary as these unauthorized “gardens” are in areas that are not designed nor designated as a garden area for resident plantings.

These make-shift gardens are located in the parking lot, common areas, areas that abut parking stalls, walk paths, perimeter fences and walls (see photo). This creates safety concerns such as tripping hazards, erosion, infiltration of roots into gas, water and/or sewer lines, pest control issues and excessive debris.

Funding At Jeopardy

Furthermore, in some instances, tenants were prevented from safely using their parking stalls, entering and exiting their vehicles, and were at risk of vehicular harm while tending their gardens. Removing these hazards are not only the right thing to do, but failure by the HPHA to not remove these hazards will negatively affect the HPHA’s REAC inspection scores and jeopardize our funding.

Mr. Higa also states, “To be fair, there are good reasons for rules such as these. You don’t want residents to plant just anywhere.” The first picture in the article shows many violations that the Federal REAC inspectors would penalize the HPHA that would result in the deduction of 21.83 points from our score:

We very much agree with Mr. Higa’s assertion of the importance of personal and community gardens, however and equally as important is how we can protect and continue receiving the over $103 million in federal funding that the state receives each year.

“The HPHA must make tough decisions every day.”

We are currently working to determine whether there is an area that is allowable by HUD standards. But the residents who use the area will still be required to maintain it in compliance with the federal physical inspection protocols.

The HPHA must make tough decisions every day to either spend the tax payers’ money on matters such as maintaining gardens or to bring additional units into inventory to house some of the homeless and the thousands on our waitlists that are not as lucky to have a housing unit.

In making such decisions, we always keep in mind the best interests of our tenants, prospective tenants that are on our waitlists and the taxpayers who fund these programs. Unfortunately, with limited funding at 87% proration, the tough decision in this case is to remove gardens for the many reasons outlined above.

Community Voices aims to encourage broad discussion on many topics of community interest. It’s kind of a cross between Letters to the Editor and op-eds. This is your space to talk about important issues or interesting people who are making a difference in our world. Column lengths should be no more than 800 words and we need a current photo of the author and a bio. We welcome video commentary and other multimedia formats. Send to news@civilbeat.org. The opinions and information expressed in Community Voices are solely those of the authors and not Civil Beat.

About the Author

  • Hakim Ouansafi
    Hakim Ouansafi is the executive director of the Hawaii Public Housing Authority, one the largest housing authorities in the United States. His decades of public service includes serving on the board of directors for the Federal Law Enforcement Foundation, the board of firectors for the Interfaith Alliance Hawaii and the as the chairman of the board of directors for the Muslim Association of Hawaii.