Funding and maintenance issues hinder state housing
Some 760 public units are empty, about half of which need "major" repairs, state officials say
State housing officials say they are working on a plan to reduce the vacancy rate in federally funded public housing complexes but are hampered by limited funding and a small maintenance crew.
The pledge comes as advocates for the homeless - seeing no signs that the state's affordable housing crisis is relenting - are renewing their concerns about the problem in discussions with the state Housing and Community Development Corp., which manages 5,363 federally funded public housing units statewide.
"It's a crisis situation that is the state's responsibility," said Oahu Continuum of Care member Michael Ullman, adding that the number of vacant public housing units in the state is comparable to the number of chronically homeless living on Oahu.
Since 2000 the number of vacant units in the state's federally funded public housing complexes has hovered above 660, reaching a high of 902 in 2001, according to the state. Today, 760 of the units are empty -- about half of which require "major renovations," state housing officials say.
Last year, statistics show, there were 717 vacant units.
HCDCH board member Travis Thompson, who represents Maui, asked the agency at November's meeting to provide a "schedule showing how they will be remedying" the problem, saying he was frustrated at how the vacancy rate -- now at about 14 percent -- does not seem to be going down.
"It's just a real challenge," Thompson added in a recent telephone interview. "Some of the units are pretty bad."
The matter is set to be discussed at the board's upcoming meeting on Thursday.
Meanwhile, state housing officials say they have been trying to come up with new ways to tackle the vacancies in response to criticism from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
HUD placed the housing agency in "troubled" status last year, partly because of its vacancy rate. In November, HCDCH's performance was upped to "standard."
Over the past year, in response to the "troubled" rating, HCDCH officials tried to reduce vacancies by striking a deal with the state crews that work on maintenance at schools.
The state Department of Accounting and General Services crews completed projects at public housing complexes on the weekends and holidays.
HCDCH is also considering a program with the state Department of Public Safety that would have convicts doing gardening and grounds work at housing complexes to free up maintenance crews.
"I think the problem we're having is that we have a backlog of vacancies to deal with that have maintenance issues," said Pam Dodson, executive assistant to HCDCH Executive Director Stephanie Aveiro.
Funding is also an issue.
In the last legislative session, HCDCH asked for $10 million to cover repairs and maintenance at housing complexes. The agency got $2 million for this year and $3 million for 2006.
But Dodson said HCDCH is "really working to address this problem," despite the funding and manpower concerns.
"Our priority is to get people into housing," she said. "We're going to have to come up with a strategy -- how do we reduce our vacancies."
There are 18,000 people in Hawaii on waiting lists to get into public housing, Dodson said. Separate rosters are kept for different areas of the state, and residents can appear on multiple lists, so the actual number of people is lower.
David Yaw, chairman of the HCDCH Resident Advisory Board and a tenant at Kaahumanu Homes, said the housing agency seems to be more attuned to the vacancy problem and eager to resolve it.
"We all know with this homeless crisis going on, to hold these units back is ridiculous," Yaw said. "But I do see something promising. They're responding much quicker."
He said his biggest concern is that the backlog problem will only get worse, with so much attention being paid to vacant units and not enough to lived-in apartments that are also deteriorating with time and use.
Most of the state's public housing complexes were built in the 1960s and '70s. The oldest complex, Kuhio Park Terrace, was built in 1952. Kalihi Valley Homes and Kuhio Homes opened a year later.
The complexes with the highest number of vacancies are:
» Kalihi Valley Homes, 156 empty units.
» Kuhio Park Terrace, 95 vacancies.
» Lanakila Homes, 80 empty apartments.
» Makamae in Honolulu, 32 empty units.
» Kahekili Terrace, 29 vacancies.
Bob Nakata, with Solidarity for the Homeless, said the vacancies could be alleviated if HCDCH got more state funds.
"I want to see them have the necessary resources to bring the housing into decent shape," he said. "With a fairly large surplus, we should be able to help get the Legislature to allocate more funds."
But Ullman of Continuum of Care said funding is not the only issue. "HCDCH does not have an organizational structure that can remedy the current problems and ensure that these problems don't reoccur," he said, adding that the state should look into privatizing some maintenance services to reduce costs.