About $120 million is needed to repair student housing stock, UH leaders said. But some senators questioned the timing of the request.

Senators and University of Hawaii leaders clashed over funding for student housing during a budget hearing Wednesday, even as both groups recognized an urgent need to address a years-long facilities problem.

Although the UH board of regents requested $120 million to renovate and repair student housing at UH Manoa, the governor’s proposed budget did not include those funds for the upcoming fiscal year. So the university is turning to the Legislature, which is holding hearings before it convenes on Jan. 17.

Currently, housing at the university’s flagship campus consists of over 20 residential buildings, many built in the 1960s and ’70s, housing nearly 3,500 students. 

UH President David Lassner, who plans to retire at the end of this year, emphasized that student housing was one of the university’s top priorities. But senators criticized and questioned the timing of UH’s funding request.

Sen. Donna Mercado Kim repeatedly questioned why UH previously didn’t prioritize the repair and maintainance of student housing previously. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2024)

Senate Higher Education Committee Chair Donna Mercado Kim pointed to what she called the continued neglect of Hale Noelani, a university apartment complex that was built in 1978 and stopped housing students in 2017 due to structural and safety concerns.  

“That’s very troubling,” Kim said, adding that she feels UH has not prioritized student needs in recent years. 

She and Senate Ways and Means Committee Chair Donovan Dela Cruz — frequent critics of UH leadership — challenged the university’s insistence that it had limited options if the state failed to fund the student housing repairs.

The university has a $25 million “rainy day fund” that could go toward housing maintenance and repairs, but that money is to support all facilities, said Jan Gouveia, UH vice president for administration. She said repairs to the Hale Noelani apartment complex would cost $80 million alone. The building previously housed 530 students, making up 13% of UH’s housing supply. 

Kim and Dela Cruz repeatedly argued that the university neglected its housing supply in the past, leading to a backlog of repairs and an accumulation of major maintenance problems.

Of the ten residence halls at UH Manoa, six have not received renovations since they were first constructed, according to a November board of regents meeting. The most recent set of renovations took place in 2012 at Gateway House, a residence hall constructed in 1963.

After the hearing, vice president for budget and finance Kalbert Young blamed the buildup of problems on limited investment and funding for university housing maintenance, compounded with a lack of attention to UH’s housing program. He called the vacant Hale Noelani complex the “poster project.”

“Even though they’re open, they are showing their age,” Young said about the remaining housing complexes. 

Vice president for budget and finance Kalbert Young, left, and President David Lassner, right, both said the university should have placed a greater focus on repairing its student housing in the past. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2024)

Young said UH did not request or receive any funding for student housing last year, adding that he is unsure why UH Manoa did not put in a request to the board of regents. 

When pressed why the university didn’t address the closure of Hale Noelani back in 2014, Lassner said he was unaware of the problem until it was recently brought to his attention. While maintaining housing may not have been a priority for the university in the past, Lassner said, it is now. 

“We’re moving forward,” Lassner said. “If you want to go back and blame me, that’s fine.”

The senators also insisted that UH could find the funding for repairs on its own. Kim pointed to the university’s decision to fund the expansion of seating at Ching Field amid delays in building a new Aloha Stadium after the closure of the old one, which previously hosted UH football games.

“The field was an expediency?” Kim asked. “What about the students?” 

If the university found the money to cover the athletic complex’s expansion, Dela Cruz added, it should also be capable of finding a way to cover the costs of the housing repairs that should have been brought to the Legislature’s attention years ago.

While UH did not receive state funding for the $30 million expansion of the athletic complex, it got $50 million in federal Covid-19 relief funds that offset the costs to the university’s budget. 

UH Manoa Football field.
Senators said UH wrongly prioritized the expansion of the Ching Field over repairs to student housing in recent years. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021)

Kim also criticized the university’s recent focus on pursuing new housing projects while failing to maintain its current buildings.

The Residences for Innovative Student Entrepreneurs opened at the start of the 2023-24 school year, and a facility housing graduate students is set to open in fall 2025. In total, the two projects will add roughly 900 beds to UH’s housing stock.

UH did not receive state funding for either housing development, said spokesman Dan Meisenzahl. As public private partnerships, the two projects have come at no cost to the public, Meisenzahl added. 

Young said the university can’t afford to lose any more housing units to disrepair and the university will continue to seek funds to address the entirety of its repair and maintenance needs.

“Even with all of that, I still don’t think it will meet the full demand,” Young said. 

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