Providing financial support to landlords who need to do repairs could be a quick way to create more housing, advocates say.

Facing a spike in demand for already-sparse housing, groups supporting those who were homeless before the Maui fires are offering assistance for landlords to repair existing units as a way to help people get into new homes faster.

The discussion about affordable housing in Hawaii has long focused on the need to build more units. But that takes time. Meanwhile, many aging apartments and houses that have been damaged or fallen into disrepair could be made livable, advocates say.

The Family Life Center, a nonprofit based in Kahului that works with homeless people, has one such program that provides assistance to landlords to maintain units in good condition so they can be used to expand capacity for more tenants.

“If landlords have properties in the middle of being renovated, can we help them fix them? Can we put some resources into funding? Can we pay for some of the materials? Can we help them take underutilized spaces and bring them up to code?” the organization’s CEO Maude Cumming said. “That’s one of the ways we’re trying to create more housing.” 

A brush fire razed Lahaina in West Maui, Aug. 8. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)
Wildfires in Lahaina destroyed around 1,500 residential buildings, displacing thousands and intensifying the housing crunch on Maui. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)

Trying to make the most out of the units that are available is something housing advocates have been working on since before the Aug. 8 disaster.

Last year, Family Life Center spent around $100,000 helping landlords fix about 20 units after they were damaged by tenants or fell into disrepair, Cumming said. The money comes from the organization’s remediation fund, which is replenished through fundraising, she said.

Cumming estimated that the landlords currently working with her organization manage about five to 10 units that could be used now with just minor fixes like painting and plumbing work.

In Need Of Repairs

She said the nonprofit plans to lend a hand to get these units ready for tenants quickly, but stressed the group only provides this type of assistance to “mom and pop” landlords or those who don’t have the resources to do it themselves.

The initiative is just one example of how to utilize existing spaces in an island state with a limited supply of affordable housing and hundreds of units sitting vacant because of their condition.

Hope Services Hawaii, a homeless services nonprofit on Hawaii island, has a master leasing program that allows landlords to rent directly to the nonprofit, which then subleases to tenants. The units qualify for free repair and maintenance services, and the organization guarantees responsibility. 

The nonprofit currently has eight units with master leases and has budgeted $100,000 to scale up the program with support from Hawaii County.

A federal resources fair takes place Saturday, Aug. 26, 2023, in Lahaina. Rep. Jill Tokuda and Senator Mazie Hirono hosted the event. It was designed to help fire victims obtain federal assistance for important paperwork lost in the Aug. 8 fire. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)
Displaced people have been given housing in hotels and Airbnbs while searching for more permanent long-term housing. That compounds the housing crisis as Maui already had a large population of homeless people. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

Hope Services CEO Brandee Menino learned about the master leasing program from a nationwide veterans housing nonprofit called U.S. Vets and said it is a great option for homeless individuals and families who struggle to find housing because of poor or nonexistent credit, criminal backgrounds or poor rental histories.

“Master leasing is one possible solution for individuals and families exiting shelters and hotels with no other option and resources,” she said. “We’d imagine households who were houseless pre-disaster could use this assistance, as could undocumented migrant families and other vulnerable households.”

Statewide, more than 260 public housing units are in need of rehabilitation, and the Hawaii Public Housing Authority needs to complete roughly $8 million in capital improvements, according to a 2023 bill from the House Housing Committee. The state’s public housing inventory is “dated” and multiple properties are more than 50 years old, says the bill, which proposed providing the housing authority with additional funding to rehabilitate these units. The bill didn’t advance.

The median age of housing units statewide is 44 years, according to a 2023 report from the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization. A slow pace of new housing production in the state means that the set of homes cycling through the market are decaying in quality.

“No state in the US has a housing stock that is aging more quickly than Hawai‘i,” the report says.

According to the most recent data available from a 2019 Hawaii Housing Planning Study, 19% of rented units in 2011 were in fair condition and 5% were in poor condition.

While the state still needs to focus on building infrastructure and creating new housing supply, conducting repairs and upkeep is an important piece of the solution, said Rep. Troy Hashimoto, who is chair of the Housing Committee.

“Over time, we should be maintaining so that we don’t have to then find new sources to do a big rehab,” he said. “We do understand that rehab does play a role in the housing stock, but I think it’s a balance. I think in this Maui situation, they’re going to have to look at every option they have because it’s quite a bit of people that are not housed.”

‘Taken Away From Us At The Very Last Moment’

Degrading conditions at an aging house in Upcountry caused one Maui couple to become homeless months before fires razed Lahaina and destroyed 19 homes in Kula and Olinda.

Rose Roselinsky Crowe, 72, and her husband, John Crowe, 64, spent years living in a cottage in Makawao with severe termite damage. They loved living in the 1978 plywood home but were told in August 2020 that it was in poor condition. 

John Crowe and Rose Roselinsky Crowe were ready to sign paperwork for an apartment on Aug. 8, but after the Lahaina fires were told it would go to someone who lost their home. (Courtesy of Chaplain Thresia Phillips)

Because it was the height of the coronavirus pandemic, and Rose suffers from multiple conditions that make her immunocompromised, moving was impossible at the time. 

But the stress of living in a home that was structurally unsound was also affecting their health. 

“When the wind would pick up, both John and I would wonder if the roof would fall in on us,” she said. 

They moved to a homeless shelter in Wailuku in May to wait for another option. 

When Chaplain Ministries of Maui, an organization that works with homeless clients on Medicaid, found them a first-floor unit at Hale Makana O Waiale, it was “the answer to a three-year long prayer,” Rose said. 

They were scheduled to sign paperwork for the apartment on Aug. 8, the day fires destroyed Lahaina and killed at least 115 people.

By the time they were ready to move in, they were told the unit would need to go to a family who’d been displaced by the fires. 

“It was taken away from us at the very last moment,” Rose said. “I started crying due to all the frustration I’d been experiencing for years trying to find a home here.”

People can wait 10 years or more for an affordable housing unit to open up on Maui, said Thresia Phillips, a chaplain with Chaplain Ministries of Maui. The problem is now exacerbated after more than 2,200 structures were destroyed in Lahaina, most residential buildings.

That included an 89-unit affordable housing complex that had just opened in December, according to affordable housing developer Ikaika Ohana.

Advocates for the homeless community on Maui don’t want to see their clients get left behind as the focus on housing shifts to those who have been displaced by the fires. That means trying to utilize every possible option that exists. 

“I knock on the private owners’ doors, business owners, whoever’s got space available, or whoever’s got an option to renovate,” said Leah Smith, CEO of Chaplain Ministries Maui, “and those are the ones that I’m not afraid to ask, ‘What are you doing with that space right there?’”

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.

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