Maintenance problems at a state-owned apartment building for seniors underscore another challenge in providing affordable housing.

When Edie Bandmann was looking for a place to live, the Honuakaha Elderly Housing development in Kakaako seemed the perfect place for the 77-year-old retiree.

Not only were the affordable units in her price range; the building also was across Queen Street from the 19th century Kawaiahao Cemetery and Church, where Bandmann is a member and where her kids celebrated graduations from Kamehameha Schools.

But, like many of her neighbors in Honuakaha, Bandmann’s feelings about life in the development have soured, in her case, because of a smell. According to Bandmann and other neighbors, it took building managers more than a week to perform a welfare check on a tenant who had died alone in her unit.

By that time, the smell of death was drifting into the halls.

Residents of the Honuakaha building at 545 Queen St. say their state landlord, the Hawaii Community Development Authority, isn’t responsive when it comes to repairs. (Stewart Yerton/Civil Beat/2023)

“You can’t describe it, it was so bad,” Bandmann said. “And my husband was a hunter, so I’ve been around smells and stuff. But this one was bad.”

Bandmann isn’t alone. An afternoon tour of Honuakaha last week found several residents with a variety of complaints about the building, which is owned by the Hawaii Community Development Authority and located next door to the HCDA’s headquarters.

‘I Feel Like I’m In The Shining’

The building includes 141 350-square-foot studios and nine one-bedroom apartments. It also has 93 condominiums that are owned by residents. Renters interviewed said they pay between $600 and $800 monthly.

Despite the low rents and stated fear of being kicked out, a number of residents came forward to speak of what they described as an unresponsive landlord. They complained of broken blinds, leaking air conditioners, black mold and a lack of hot water. One tenant says it took months to replace a stove that had been shocking her.

Patsy Higa Stone, a 79-year-old retired cleaning company owner, said the building refused to replace her refrigerator even though its exhaust system was infested by small cockroaches. It was only a matter of time before the fridge’s motor would wear out, Higa Stone says. Eventually her son bought her a new refrigerator to replace the one the landlord was supposed to supply.

“I know they were in there a long time,” Higa Stone said of the roaches. “The problem was never addressed.”

Honuakaha resident Bo-Bae Kim calls the Hawaii Community Development Authority’s assertion that most repairs are completed in one or two days “ridiculous.” (Stewart Yerton/Civil Beat/2023)

As state and local government officials seek to address Hawaii’s housing shortage, Honuakaha shows just how hard it can be to meet the needs of the public, especially lower-income residents who don’t have the money to pay high rents.

Honuakaha is particularly striking because of its relationship with HCDA, and the authority’s purpose. The HCDA was established to oversee redevelopment of Kakaako in part to address issues like “a lack of suitable affordable housing” in Honolulu. 

“The fundamental problem is the rent charged is too low to pay for the repair and maintenance of the properties.”

State Sen. Stanley Chang

Honuakaha is a relatively rare example of truly affordable homes in what’s become a gentrified neighborhood of luxury condo towers.

The authority owns the building through an entity called Honuakaha Limited Partnership, with HCDA as the sole partner. The partnership’s agent is Craig Nakamoto, HCDA’s executive director.

High-level HCDA employees also hold seats on Honuakaha’s condominium association board. The board’s vice president representing the seniors, for instance, is Lindsey Doi Leaverton, a former journalist now paid more than $120,000 annually as an HCDA asset manager.

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Doi Leaverton declined an interview request, saying she would refer the request to a public information officer, who did not contact Civil Beat. Instead, Doi Leaverton sent an email citing HCDA’s property manager, Locations Property Management, which said most work orders have been “completed within one or two days of being reported.”

“There are a few that take longer due to parts being unavailable on island or scheduling conflicts,” Doi Leaverton wrote, “but Locations notes that those are also completed in a timely manner.”

A number of residents disputed Doi Leaverton’s assertion. Among them was Bo-Bae Kim, who shares one of the building’s fee simple, loft-style units with her boyfriend.

“That’s ridiculous,” Kim said, when asked about Doi Leaverton’s statement that issues are generally resolved in a couple of days.

Among other things, Kim pointed to a building courtyard, touted as an amenity, which Kim said has never been open for residents to use because of problems that have caused water to leak from the space into the parking garage. In addition, she said, the garage has been the location of chronically leaking pipes, including some carrying what Kim said smelled like sewage.

“I feel like I’m in ‘The Shining,’” said Kim, who said building management refused for days to check on the neighbor who had died, until people started complaining about the smell.

Harumi Takemoto said she understands why it has taken almost year for building managers to address some small repairs in her unit. “It’s OK,” she said. “They’re very busy.” (Stewart Yerton/Civil Beat/2023)

Other residents also reported waiting weeks or months for repairs to be done.

Roland Manuel says his bathroom mold problem lingered until his upstairs neighbor moved out. Tane Hamada said it took months to get her stove replaced even though it was shocking her. It took an equally long time to replace the stove when it finally broke, she said.

“They’ve never come in and fixed something in my apartment correctly the first time,” Hamada said. “The bottom line is they don’t know what they’re doing.”

Harumi Takemoto expressed sympathy toward the building managers when discussing how it’s taken almost a year to get repairs done to her baseboards. A tour of the tiny studio showed broken tiles in her bathroom and a bathroom mirror largely obscured by stains. Takemoto, who shares the studio with her husband, Pete, said she does all the cleaning, even though she’s blind. The damaged baseboards, she said, create a hazard when she’s doing her kitchen floor.

“This one is very dangerous,” she said, kneeling on her hands and knees and gesturing under her kitchen counter. “It’s easy to cut my fingers.”

But, she added, “It’s OK. They’re very busy.”

Doi Leaverton acknowledged one tenant had suffered a lingering problem having insufficient hot water. But, she said, “the renter in the affected unit was relocated to a different unit with no such intermittent hot water issues.” 

In fact, the tenant was still waiting to be located last week, when Civil Beat visited her apartment, interviewed her and confirmed that she did not have hot water.

Maintenance Is Costly

HCDA is hardly the only government agency that struggles to maintain affordable rental properties, said Hawaii Sen. Stanley Chang, who chairs the Senate Committee on Housing. In fact, Chang said, he introduced a bill this session to provide $20.2 million to the Hawaii Public Housing Authority to upgrade 255 units across the state that no longer meet federal health and safety standards.

At the same time, Chang said, the private sector has its share of horror stories.

“It wouldn’t be fair to say only the government is capable of being a bad landlord,” Chang said.

To Chang, it comes down to economics.

“The fundamental problem is the rent charged is too low to pay for the repair and maintenance of the properties,” he said.

House Speaker Scott Saiki’s letter to residents at Honuakaha. (Screenshot)

Hawaii House Speaker Scott Saiki, whose district includes Honuakaha, has promised tenants he will help them.

“It is unfortunate to hear that you and other residents are experiencing these problems,” Saiki wrote in a letter sent to residents after receiving a text from Civil Beat stating some of their concerns. “I will be taking these concerns to the Hawaii Community Development Authority and intend to request an action plan to better maintain Honuakaha.”

Meanwhile, the tenants continue to wait. Kim, who has stepped up as an unofficial leader of a tenants’ group, said that for everyone who was willing to speak to Civil Beat on the record there are others afraid to speak out for fear of losing their homes.

Others, like Higa Stone, say they’re not afraid to speak out for their rights.

“I’m Okinawan,” she said. “We fight to the death.”

Struggling To Get By” is part of our series on “Hawaii’s Changing Economy” which is supported by a grant from the Hawaii Community Foundation as part of its CHANGE Framework project.

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