Agencies leaderless amid upheaval
Public-housing advocates are watching closely as a beleaguered bureaucracy prepares to split
Nearly a decade after its formation, the beleaguered state agency that oversees public housing and affordable-housing development will split in five weeks, and many say they are concerned that directors for the two divisions have yet to be chosen.
Public housing tenants and state officials also say they are watching the transition closely and hope an agency dedicated almost solely to managing public housing will mean fewer vacant units and better maintenance at housing complexes.
"I would have preferred seeing the administration appoint directors at an earlier date," said state Sen. Ron Menor, chairman of the Senate Housing Committee, who drafted the 2005 legislation that split the Housing and Community Development Corp., "but I am gratified that the reorganization of our public housing agency is finally coming to fruition."
HCDCH was formed in 1997, uniting the state's public-housing authority and its housing development agencies. Then-Gov. Ben Cayetano had hoped the change would improve the agency's efficiency.
But HCDCH has been under scrutiny in recent years, especially for its inability to fill vacant units. The vacancy rate contributed to the agency's "troubled" status under federal guidelines from 2004 to 2005.
In December there were 760 vacant apartments at federal public housing complexes statewide.
This month, 621 units were empty, HCDCH statistics show. Of the vacant units, 178 are set to be demolished, 166 will be "modernized" and 32 have been decommissioned because of damage.
"I think it's going to be critical for our new public-housing agency to do a more effective job in making vacant housing units available for occupancy," Menor said. "The inability to achieve that objective has been one of its (HCDCH's) greatest failures."
Lusia Wieckowicz, secretary of Island Tenants on the Rise, said maintenance should also be improved.
"They need to create better housing management," she said, adding that repairs in public housing are backlogged and slow in coming.
On July 1 the Hawaii Public Housing Authority will officially start operation at its School Street offices under the state Department of Human Services. The housing agency will pull about 300 employees from HCDCH.
The Hawaii Finance and Development Corp. will be a separate entity -- with about 100 HCDCH workers -- under the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism, officials said.
Earlier this month, HCDCH Executive Director Stephanie Aveiro told the Star-Bulletin that she would likely apply as director of one of the agencies.
But on Friday she announced her retirement.
Officials say there do not appear to be any other applicants to head the agencies.
Ted Liu, director of the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism, said it has been difficult trying to find private-sector professionals to head the new finance and affordable-housing arm.
The position pays about $70,000 a year, much less than comparable private-sector jobs would pay, Liu said.
"I would have loved to have somebody that would already be heading it up," he said. "What I'm hoping to find is someone familiar with the development process. It's going to be very difficult."
Liu added that he hopes the agency's mission of creating affordable housing in a tight market attracts well-qualified people up for a challenge. The division will also oversee the Rental Housing Trust Fund.
David Yaw, chairman of HCDCH's Resident Advisory Board, is also optimistic that a new public-housing head will come ready to deal with problems.
"I would like to see them make changes as to the dilapidation of public housing and the maintaining of safe and clean environments," he said.
HCDCH has spent much of the year preparing for the split, from figuring out where joint documents should be stored to shifting employees to either division. The split created nine new positions -- three for the housing authority and six for the development division.
Aveiro said that the agency's board had initially opposed the split, but decided not to attempt a fight at this year's legislative session lest a new measure fail and the agency be left scrambling to prepare.
"We knew this was coming up," Aveiro said. "It is taking a lot of time and energy to do this. It is in fact another full-time job for a lot of the time."
U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Honolulu Director Michael Flores said that he has been working with Aveiro to make sure that the split "happens as smoothly as possible."
It is too early to tell whether the change will affect the housing authority's rating, he said.
When the Housing and Community Development Corporation of Hawaii splits on July 1, two new agencies will be created.
The Hawaii Public Housing Authority will oversee 5,229 federal public-housing apartments along with the administration of grants for homeless and low-income service providers. The Hawaii Finance and Development Corp. will manage the Rental Housing Trust Fund and work to build affordable-housing projects with private developers.
The two entities had been separate prior to 1997.