Advocates call for the state’s landlord-tenant code reformed to better protect tenants from “unscrupulous” landlords.

Holes in the walls chewed by rats are covered with blue duct tape. Water sits stagnant in bathtubs that won’t drain. Battery-powered lanterns hang from doorways to light rooms with faulty electricity. 

Tenants of a six-unit apartment complex on Young Street in Honolulu have been living in these conditions for years. 

Many said that for a long time, they didn’t understand their rights or know how to fight for better conditions. Plus, it was better than living on the street, some said. 

Alberina Kirielno, 54, and Nancy Aqrippah, 53, are paying $1,550 a month to rent an apartment at a Honolulu complex they say remains in deplorable condition despite attempts to get their landlord to do repairs. (Madeleine List/Civil Beat/2023)

But advocates who are helping the tenants organize say the case is an example of the fact that the state’s current landlord-tenant code isn’t robust enough to protect against private landlords who don’t properly maintain their buildings. They want to see provisions added that will give tenants more recourse and a streamlined process to assist those who are vulnerable, especially migrants who may have limited English proficiency or who may be vulnerable to being taken advantage of by landlords.

Most of all, they want to see that buildings they say are unsafe and uninhabitable, like the one at 1738 Young Street, don’t continue to be rented out.

The tenants at 1738 Young St. are all from Micronesia, which along with Palau and the Marshall Islands are part of the Compacts of Free Association and have treaties that allow the U.S. military access in exchange for financial assistance and special immigration status so their citizens can legally live, work and go to school in the U.S.

‘Sometimes, I Cry’

Alberina Kirielno’s cupboards have gaping holes she says were formed by rats.

As she points to the empty shelves she explains that storing food is difficult because her unit also doesn’t have a refrigerator. She shops most days for what her family plans to eat that day so rodents don’t devour their food first.

“Sometimes, I cry,” said the 54-year-old resident, who is originally from the Micronesian state of Pohnpei.

Alberina Kirielno says rats have chewed holes in the tops of her kitchen cupboards. (Madeleine List/Civil Beat/2023)

With the help of the COFA Workers Association, a project of the Hawaii Workers Center that focuses on human rights particularly for immigrants from Micronesia, Palau and the Marshall Islands, residents began to organize a few months ago.

Sergio Alcubilla, co-executive director of the Hawaii Workers Center, said residents had “finally had enough” and started to get curious about organizing.

On June 1, they wrote a letter to their landlord, Hyun Ah Park, demanding that she complete a series of repairs, including solving the rodent infestation, fixing broken doors and windows and repairing holes in ceilings. 

When reached by phone, Park said she wants the tenants to leave so she can have the building demolished. 

She blames the tenants for the building’s condition and said she hasn’t been able to do repairs because they haven’t paid rent. 

“It wasn’t that bad before,” she said of the building’s condition. “They don’t pay rent, and they don’t move out.” 

‘I Didn’t Know That I Have Rights’

In some cases, tenants stayed because they didn’t think they could find other options. Others said they hoped conditions might improve.

Kirielno, whose daughter has leukemia, moved into the complex in 2019 so that her family could be close to Kapiolani Medical Center a few blocks away.

She paid a deposit before viewing the unit, and after moving in and seeing the conditions didn’t know if she could find something better. So she didn’t complain.

“I didn’t know that I have rights,” she said. “I don’t want (my landlord) to just kick me out.”

But living in the apartment, which also occasionally floods with water leaking from the bathroom toilet, has become unbearable.

Nancy Agrippah, 53, who is also from Pohnpei, said her brother told her about the apartment complex, and when she moved in in February, the landlord promised to do repairs on her unit.

Nancy Aqrippah filed a temporary restraining order agains her landlord after her water was shut off without a court order.

But, seven months later, she still has dozens of holes on her ceiling patched with blue tape. Her front door is nothing but a swinging screen. And the glass of her bedroom windows is broken, she says from the landlord banging on them to demand rental payment.

“Sometimes she makes me scared,” she said. “Everything is broke. We don’t have nothing.”

Tenants Demand Repairs

After tenants sent the letter to Park demanding repairs, they said she shut off their water for 10 days.

After the shutoff, Agrippah filed a request for a temporary restraining order against the landlord, which a judge granted on Sept. 7, according to Honolulu District Court documents. Her case is still working its way through court and was postponed until Nov. 1 because an interpreter wasn’t available for her last scheduled court date.

Tenants said they also tried withholding some of their $1,550 monthly rent to pressure Park to conduct repairs.

Masai Salle, 58, says he did many repairs on his own unit after moving in but was never reimbursed by his landlord. (Madeleine List/Civil Beat/2023)
Irene Ruben stares at water sitting in a sink that won’t drain. (Madeleine List/Civil Beat/2023)

According to the state’s landlord-tenant handbook, if a landlord does not fix a condition in a unit that poses a health or safety concern within five days of being notified, a tenant can do the work themselves and deduct $500 from the next month’s rent to cover the cost. Landlords can also reimburse tenants for repairs they do themselves if they submit receipts.

But advocates say that’s not enough, especially since the handbook can be difficult to navigate for those who don’t speak English well. 

“Especially with the challenges of our COFA migrants, they may not be aware of the landlord-tenant code,” Alcubilla said. “Where would they go if they needed help on this issue?”

Nancy Aqrippah said her landlord promised to do repairs after she moved in, but the work was never completed. (Madeleine List/Civil Beat/2023)

Masai Salle, 58, who is Chuukese, said his unit was already heavily damaged when he moved in four years ago. But since he’d put down a deposit already, he decided to stay and fix it up himself.

But Park never reimbursed him for the work, he said.

“I had to patch up holes for the rats,” he said. “It’s just really too much. I cannot control it.”

In September, he paid just $1,100 of his $1,550 rent, and she shut off his water for 10 days, he said.

Park denied that she shut off tenants’ water and said they are the ones responsible for maintaining their units.

“They’re doing all the making it bad,” she said of the conditions.

More Protections For Tenants

Alcubilla said he’d like to see provisions added to the landlord-tenant code that give tenants more recourse to demand repairs, such as the ability to file a court order compelling the landlord to act.

He would also like to see an easy-to-navigate helpline created through the City and County of Honolulu that tenants can call for assistance. He envisions a system where tenants could ask for city inspectors to check their units and request emergency repairs that the city would then bill directly to the landlord.

“There are solutions like that that are out there,” he said.

Dozens of holes are covered with blue tape on Nancy Aqrippah’s ceiling. She says the holes were chewed by rats. (Madeleine List/Civil Beat/2023)

City and County of Honolulu spokesman Ian Scheuring did not return a call seeking comment from the mayor’s office.

Honolulu City Councilman Calvin Say, who represents the district where the complex is located, said he has met with the tenants and wants to form a working group comprising advocates, city leaders and state leaders to come up with ideas for how to reform the landlord-tenant code.

“I wanted to learn the plight of the Micronesian community residents,” he said. “I just want landlords to treat these individuals as human beings.”

For now, the tenants at the Young Street complex face an uncertain future.

Kirielno said she has been looking for a new place for months, but the task, which is already made difficult by of a lack of affordable options in Honolulu, is complicated further by the fact that she has to list Park as a reference on her applications.

Her record also includes complaints Park filed against her in court for nonpayment of rent.

Many of the tenants were already in a difficult position when they moved in because migrants often don’t have rental histories that they can show when applying for new leases, Alcubilla said.

Kirielno said she now understands her rights better and wants to advocate for change. She just hopes others will listen.

“No one will believe us because we’re Micronesians,” she said. “That’s why I cry. We’re not bad people.”

Civil Beat’s community health coverage is supported by the Swayne Family Fund of Hawaii Community Foundation, the Cooke Foundation, Atherton Family Foundation and Papa Ola Lokahi.

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