Wednesday, September 28, 2011

PRESS RELEASE: LEJ Joins the Appleseed Network as the Hawai`i Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice

Lawyers for Equal Justice Joins Appleseed Public Interest Network
as the
Hawai`i Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice

September 26, 2011

Honolulu: The Board of Directors of Lawyers for Equal Justice (LEJ) is proud to announce that LEJ is joining with 16 other public interest justice centers in the United States and Mexico affiliated with the Appleseed organization. LEJ’s new name is the Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice.

LEJ is a Hawaii nonprofit, 501(c)(3) public interest law firm that was created to advocate on behalf of low income individuals and families in Hawai`i on civil legal issues of statewide importance. The program has successfully resolved a number of class action cases that have made significant improvements in the lives of many low income individuals including disabled tenants in public and private housing, educational guarantees for homeless children and health care for Micronesians. It has also assisted veterans in securing their rights.

The national office for Appleseed is located in Washington, D.C. and supports the work of the 17 Centers. The Centers function as independent organizations linked into a national network. Each Center recruits its own staff and leadership, raises its own sources of funding, and develops its own projects and strategies for reform. Additionally, Centers work actively with the national office of Appleseed on collaborative projects, many of which grow out of local work of single Centers in such areas as education, financial access and health care. All Centers rely on a combination of staff and pro bono volunteers to conduct project work. Most of the Centers have similar missions and are engaged in activities that aim to address many of the same problems that LEJ addresses.

The benefits of the new Appleseed affiliation are significant for LEJ. They enhance its ability to:

-Gain from the successful experience of other Centers on similar work;
-Collaborate on national initiatives that will impact the lives of clients in Hawaii;
-Access financial support from national and local foundations;
-Expand the use of administrative and legislative advocacy as alternatives to litigation;
-Meet periodically with staff from the other 16 Centers to discuss emerging issues that are affecting our clients and explore appropriate responses; and
-Diversify LEJ’s funding base to increase its long term stability and opportunities for growth.

“I couldn’t be more delighted and honored that LEJ is joining the Appleseed network,” said Appleseed’s Executive Director Betsy Cavendish. “Victor Geminiani and the organization he leads have secured real victories for veterans, for the disabled, for homeless kids seeking their educational rights, for victims of maltreatment and improper administration of government benefits programs. They use the law to combat poverty and its effects, and to secure the promise of our Constitution for everyone. The Appleseed network will be stronger with LEJ as a colleague organization.”

“We wanted to link our work to an effective mainland organization that shares our values: fairness, opportunity, community, partnership, responsibility, and ensuring equal access to justice,” said David Reber, President of LEJ. “LEJ studied various models and decided that Centers in the Appleseed network were doing work we admired, and that membership in the network could help share our work at a national level.”

“The recent census report on the dramatic increase in poverty throughout our nation underlines the critical importance of increasing civic engagement and organizing for effective social change through organizations like Appleseed and Hawai'i Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice to ensure justice for all” said LEJ’s Executive Director, Victor Geminiani.

LEJ is planning a reception on November 17th to share with the community further information about its work and its new affiliation with the Appleseed network.
For additional information, contact Victor Geminiani, Executive Director of the Lawyers for Equal Justice, by email at victor@lejhawaii.org or by phone at (808) 587-7605 or David Reber, a partner at the law firm Goodsill Anderson Quinn and Stifel LLP, by e-mail at dreber@goodsill.com or by phone at (808) 547-5611.

LEJ’s web site (www.hiappleseed.org) has more information on program activities.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Star-Advertiser Editorial: Kalihi rentals revamp right way to go

Star-Advertiser
Our View
5/24/2011

At long last, Hawaii is moving toward a far better model of providing housing to its lowest-income residents than what the outdated Kuhio Park Terrace became: a tumble-down, crime-plagued disgrace.

At the time it was built in 1963, KPT was only one of many tower projects developed for needy renters in urban centers across the country. In the years to follow, the highrise approach, which brings many low-income families together in a centralized complex, was rejected in favor of creating more mixed-income developments. Cities nationwide started tearing down the big apartment buildings.

That could not be even the temporary solution here because for the residents of some 700 units in KPT and the adjacent low-rise Kuhio Homes complex, demolition would mean the real threat of homelessness. Honolulu's inventory of affordable rentals falls far below the level needed to meet the need. So the incremental program of renovating the Kuhio complex in Kalihi, which was launched officially last week, is the right way to go.

The long-delayed $50 million renovation of the buildings, which will be owned by Michaels Development Co., should begin a new, more sustainable operation for families who for many years have complained about persistent leaks, dysfunctional elevators and myriad other problems. And the top three floors of Tower B will serve as a "hotel," housing residents while their units are redone, with final project completion set for the end of 2012.

The New Jersey firm Michaels Development has a good national reputation in this arena. Last December it drew top honors from the National Association of Home Builders as Multifamily Development Firm of the Year. Now its selection for this project, in partnership with the local office of Vitus Group, bodes well for the long-term success of what's now been dubbed The Towers at Kuhio Park.

It's gratifying to see the privatization of this development under way. It's a partnership that works as long as three key elements are in place: government backing, professional private oversight and a compact with the tenants, who also have their own part to play.

The two state housing agencies coordinating the financing — the Hawaii Housing Finance and Development Corp. and the Hawaii Public Housing Authority — should give the needy families and housing advocates important government assurances. In particular, HPHA will retain title on the land and, through the terms in lease agreements, can see that the units remain affordable into the future.

Private management of what are now called public housing projects has worked well in Palolo and elsewhere, and now both the state and city seem to be accelerating this trend. Michaels' management arm, Interstate Realty Management, will take over once everything's rebuilt. These companies have an incentive to see that tenants are adequately screened and that rent is paid reliably, keeping the operation financially viable and ensuring timely maintenance of the property.

Finally, good managers should see that tenants are kept in the loop about their neighborhood, and held to account for their own actions. Residents can feel a sense of ownership if they're part of developing their community activities and routines. Those who don't bear up under this responsibility will find that others are ready and willing to take their place.

Hawaii, still struggling to develop a housing market within reach of its low-income work force, must work to close that gap for its poorest citizens. Public housing is rightly seen as part of its social safety net. But it serves nobody — not the taxpayers, not the tenants — if housing is mismanaged and money goes to waste. Everyone should benefit by this change in course, if it's seen through to success 18 months from now.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Star-Advertiser: State owes Mayor Wright tenants

Class action lawsuits filed against the state last week seeking desperately needed repairs at Mayor Wright Housing should, rightly and finally, nudge state legislators to make the fixes over the next two years. The state should make repairs as a matter of routine maintenance to prevent what for years has been deplorable deterioration of low-income public housing projects throughout the state.

The repairs by the state are necessary not just as a matter of being a responsible landlord, but also by federal standards for state-run public housing facilities.

Similar lawsuits filed in 2008 were successful in forcing the state to make repairs at Kuhio Park Terrace and Kuhio Homes in Kalihi.

At Kapalama's Mayor Wright Homes, solar panels installed two decades ago, distributed to 80 tanks to provide hot water to the project's 364 apartments in 35 buildings, have failed to work in recent years.

Most residents have not been receiving hot water, according to the lawsuits filed in state and federal courts, while only one in 600 low-income-renter, occupied units nationally lack piped hot water.

Gov. Neil Abercrombie has rightly made the hot water issue at Mayor Wright a priority. His proposal to devote $5.6 million to remove the solar water panels and replace the deteriorated roofs where they have been sitting and install a new hot water system is included in a two-year general appropriations bill scheduled for a joint House-Senate conference today.

The conferees are urged to include the expenditure in the bill.

That would be "a good solid first step," says Victor Geminiani, executive director of Lawyers for Equal Justice, which represents the residents in the lawsuits.

But lack of hot water is not the only problem.

Dumpsters at Mayor Wright frequently overflow, leading many residents to place bags of trash next to them, and the bags are torn open by dogs or feral cats.

That has led to rat, roach and vermin infestations, according to the lawsuits.

From Star-Advertiser, 4/25/2011

Various other problems plague tenants inside their units, especially those with disabilities.

During and after repairs are made at Mayor Wright, the Hawaii Public Housing Authority will need to make repairs and improve maintenance elsewhere amid the 8,000 units it manages across the islands.

Legislators should make answering those needs a priority every session.

Fully addressing those problems will take time and money. HPHA has acknowledged that hundreds of millions of dollars will be needed to complete the backlog for needed renovations systemwide.

As the state government copes with a struggling economy, that will not be a quick fix — but today is the unfortunate result and reality of years of neglect and inadequate maintenance.

The state must address the problems with a degree of urgency, one steady fix at a time.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Star Advertiser: Housing project residents file suits

Plaintiffs say major upgrades are needed at Mayor Wright Homes

By Rosemarie Bernardo

CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARADVERTISER.COM

Victor Geminiani, executive director of Lawyers for Equal Justice, who is representing residents of Mayor Wright Homes in their class-action lawsuits, said yesterday that poor living conditions have long been a problem at the complex.

Kapalama residents fed up with what they say is substandard public housing conditions filed class-action lawsuits in state and federal courts yesterday against the state for the alleged lack of repairs.

The Circuit Court suit was filed by residents of Mayor Wright Homes, alleging the Hawaii Public Housing Authority failed to provide safe and sanitary conditions. The suit filed in U.S. District Court claims the authority failed to meet standards under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Fair Housing Act.

Victor Geminiani, executive director of Lawyers for Equal Justice, who is representing the residents, said poor conditions at the housing project have been a long-standing problem.

"We're waiting for changes to be made," Gemi­ni­ani said yesterday at Mayor Wright Homes.

Residents have complained that unsanitary conditions, vermin infestation and overflowing Dumpsters exacerbate their health problems, such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, he said.

Also, the lack of ramps and a lower side to bathtubs makes accessibility difficult for disabled residents, Gemi­ni­ani said. The state is required by federal law to seek reasonable accommodations for residents, and "the state doesn't do that. The state ignores them," he said.

The residents have campaigned at the state Capitol over the lack of hot water that most have suffered through for about seven years, this year winning a promise of action from the governor. Many residents say they have been forced for years to boil water.

Disabled resident Frances Wong, who has lived at the project since 1970, has a difficult time entering the bathroom because her wheelchair is wider than the doorway. Wong, who is paralyzed on the left side of her body after a stroke three years ago, must depend on family members to get in and out of the bathtub, the state suit says.

Fetu Kolio, president of the Mayor Wright Homes Tenants Association, said residents are frustrated with the state's neglect. Contractors were hired and repairs are budgeted, yet there are no results, said Kolio.

There is a lack of urgency or importance because it is a low-income housing project, he added.

Infrequent extermination services have resulted in an infestation of rats, mice and roaches on the property. Unwanted odors waft through the air from overflowing Dumpsters, while feral cats tear plastic trash bags open, resulting in more trash strewn on the grounds, according to the state court suit.

Gangs, violence and drug activity increased due to inadequate security, said Kolio. The project's playground is covered with graffiti. Overgrown trees block lighting to the property at night.

"Parents are afraid to allow their children out after dark," the suit says.

Mayor Wright Homes, the state's second-largest public housing project, has about 364 units.

Nicholas Birck, housing planner with the public housing authority, declined comment on the suits, saying officials had not had a chance to review them.


Thursday, April 21, 2011

PRESS RELEASE:

Hawaii Public Housing Authority Sued for violations of ADA and unsafe conditions

Federal and State Class Action Lawsuits Filed on Behalf of Tenants at Mayor Wright Homes Citing Unsafe Conditions and Lack of Access for Disabled Tenants.

April 21, 2011

Honolulu: Seeking to end notoriously unsafe conditions and inaccessible apartments at the Mayor Wright Homes (MWH), the state’s second largest public housing project, attorneys for a group of low-income residents with disabilities filed class action lawsuits in federal and state court today against the Hawaii Public Housing Authority.

The federal suit charges that the unsafe and unsanitary conditions at the project violate the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Rehabilitation Act and the Fair Housing Act. These federal laws prohibit discrimination against persons with disabilities and require equal access to government programs including public housing projects. The relief sought includes a court order requiring the State to cease its decades long violations of federal law by providing public housing that is accessible to disabled residents and by eliminating the unsafe and unsanitary conditions that exacerbate and cause disabilities.

A separate lawsuit filed in state Circuit Court alleges that the Housing Authority has breached its obligations to residents under the warranty of habitability-a warranty implied in all residential leases under state law. The warranty binds landlords to maintain premises in decent, safe and sanitary conditions.

The plaintiffs are represented by the non-profit organization Lawyers for Equal Justice.

The housing facilities at MWH are characterized by architectural barriers, leaking and bursting plumbing, an almost total lack of hot water, vermin infestation including rats, roaches and bedbugs, overflowing trash piles, toxic air filed with noxious particulates, inconsistent security and hazardous and inaccessible conditions.

Despite the unequivocal and longstanding mandates of federal disability nondiscrimination statutes, years of media coverage of the serious problems at MWH and the HPHA’s own 2008 audit of the deplorable and hazardous conditions throughout the project, the HPHA has failed to address the numerous problems that permeate MWH.

Victor Geminiani, Executive Director of LEJ said “The state's continued failure to fund over $350 million in critical repairs needed throughout our public housing system has resulted in 25,000 residents of public housing living for years in vermin infested apartments without hot water and garbage collection while elderly and disabled residents remain isolated in their apartments because of broken elevators and ineffective security. Mayor Wright is just one more example of the deplorable condition public housing has been allowed to become by ineffective state planning and action.”

For additional information, contact Victor Geminiani, Executive Director of the Lawyers for Equal Justice by email at victor@lejhawaii.org or by phone at 587 7605.

Lawyers for Equal Justice (LEJ) is a nonprofit, 501(c)(3) law firm that advocates on behalf of low income individuals and families in Hawaii on civil issues of statewide importance

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

LEJ Supports HR 38

LEJ strongly supports H.R. 38 HD 1. Here are some important facts about COFA and the state's attempt to illegally severely restrict critical health care services to low income members of the COFA community.

1. Why do the COFA residents have a right to receive government benefits at all?
COFA residents make positive contributions to the economy and receive very few government benefits. COFA residents are legally eligible to work in the United States and required to pay state and federal taxes. COFA states account for the highest per-capita number of military recruits than any other U.S. state or territory. Despite paying taxes, unlike all other immigrants and U.S. citizens, COFA residents are never able to establish residency and receive Federal government means-tested benefits. Refugees, victims of domestic violence, trafficking victims, those whose deportation is withheld, immigrant victims of crime, and asylum seekers are all eligible to receive these benefits, but COFA residents are not.

2. Don't COFA residents place an unfair financial burden on Hawai'i?
The State of Hawai' i received $10,571,000 million for fiscal year 2009 and $11,229,000 for fiscal year 2010 in Compact Impact funds from the federal government to help pay for services to COFA residents living in our state. Other states, such as Washington and Arkansas have sizable COFA populations. They not only provide comprehensive health benefits, but also provide food stamps and other state funded assistance to the COFA population without receiving any Compact Impact funds.

3. Why should the State pay for coverage for COFA residents in tough economic times?
Spending on COFA residents represents a very small expenditure in our state budget and a wise investment. Cutting $13 million in essential health care spending toward primary and preventative health care for our COFA population eliminates less that than .0184% of the State's $1.3 billion deficit. Additionally, it is not a wise investment. It eliminates spending on the front end while increasing overall spending for health care by ensuring that emergency service costs are significantly increased and emergency rooms overloaded. In addition, the COFA population suffers disproportionately with serious health problems, many linked to past and ongoing US occupation and nuclear weapons testing in their home countries.

4. But weren't the services offered by Basic Health Hawaii (BHH) sufficient to maintain a person's health.
BHH provided very limited health care coverage not adequate for disabled or seriously ill persons. Some patients must use the allotted doctor visits simply to get diagnosed. Most disabled individuals often need to visit the doctor more frequently, may need more than four prescription medications, and need access to medical devices. From a public health perspective, cutting access to health care from a newly arrived population is not a wise management decision to make sure serious illnesses and diseases are diagnosed and treated.

5. Keeping COFA residents healthy promotes health for all, and a healthier Hawai'i.
Cutting access from a marginalized immigrant population is a shortsighted plan that does not address the real problem and will not contribute to the health and well being of all state residents. The ability to access health services ensures that communicable diseases and illnesses are diagnosed, treated, and managed. When a marginalized population is systemically denied access, chronic conditions are left to fester until they become emergency issues.

6. Why does the U.S. have this special relationship with these countries?
The three COFA countries were formerly part of the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands. Under the COFA treaties, the U.S. exercises strategic control of over half a million square miles of the Pacific between Hawai'i and Guam. The United States conducted nuclear testing in the Pacific for many years. The U.S. Eniwetok and Bikini were used as nuclear testing grounds, setting off 67 open-air atomic and hydrogen bomb blasts that equaled 1.7 Hiroshima-sized bombs every morning for 12 years. Because of nuclear fallout and militarization, residents were forced to relocate. Diets changed, as traditional agriculture could not longer be supported on lands rendered unusable from nuclear fallout or military operations. With no other economic means for support, the United States military recruits more members from COFA states than from any other state or territory to serve overseas in our military endeavors. The treaty allows COFA residents to live and legally work in the U.S.

7. Isn't this a Federal Problem?
This is a Hawai'i issue and local problem. Other states provide services for the COFA population without receiving any Compact Impact Funds. It is only in Hawai'i that we have targeted the Micronesian immigrant population as responsible for the budget deficit.

8. Wasn't there already a lawsuit about all of this?
COFA residents and LEJ have been fighting these cuts for two years. Most recently, in November 2010, Federal Court Judge Michael Seabright found that State had violated the 14th amendment in specifically targeting COFA residents for cuts to medical services, and issued a preliminary injunction reinstating benefits for COFA residents by January 2011. The state is now appealing this ruling.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Press on Gov. Abercrombie's trip to Mayor Wright

Abercrombie visits Mayor Wright, promises hot water, KGMB

By Brooks Baehr

The water woes will soon be a thing of the past at Mayor Wright Housing.

So says Governor Neil Abercrombie. He visited the state owned housing complex Monday and after meeting with tenants told reporters the lack of hot water in some apartments will be addressed "immediately."

"They have confidence, and should have confidence, that we are going to deal with it immediately. We're going to take care of what needs to be done where the hot water is concerned," Abercrombie said.

Tenants walked the property with the governor pointing out problems that need to be addressed. The hot water, though, is their top priority. Some residents have been without consistent hot water for seven years. Others have hot water only on days when the sun shines bright enough to heat solar water systems, but in the morning the water is always cold.

Abercrombie's spokesperson says a temporary fix is already in the works. Donalyn Dela Cruz said bids are being solicited right now for a contractor who will have until July 5 to get reliable hot water into every apartment. And, Dela Cruz said, the governor's budget request to the legislature includes a $2.5 million dollar request to pay for a permanent fix.

Gov. Abercrombie To Hear Hot Water Woes, KITV

The state’s Mayor Wright Housing project has been plagued with a malfunctioning hot water system for years.

The aging system supplies water to some 364 units in the low income housing complex but chronic breakdowns mean families have inconsistent hot water.

“If you talk about consistency, there is no warm or hot water in the morning, or no warm or hot water in the evening,” said resident Fetu Kolio.

Gov. Neil Abercrombie on Tuesday met with residents over their frustration that it has taken so long to repair.


“They have confidence and should have confidence that we will deal with it immediately. We are going to take care of what needs to be done where hot water is concerned, said Gov. Neil Abercrombie.

“I feel confident after today’s discussion that they have a governor that is working with them,” Abercrombie said.

Families have been pressuring the state for years, but the budget squeeze has delayed a permanent fix.

A recent survey by area lawmakers found that about 70 percent of the units lacked hot water.

The state has begun installing tankless hot water in some of the units, but it could cost millions more to repair the entire system, officials said.

“We need to address these long term maintenance issues because that’s what cropping up now,” said Hawaii Public Housing Authority executive director Denise Wise.

Wise said there is about $8 million in the administration budget for the project. The question is whether lawmakers will fund the request.

Abercrombie oversees fix to Mayor Wright's hot water problem, KHON

Public housing resident hoping to fix a years-long hot-water problem got the attention of the governor today.

The governor visited Mayor Wright homes where an interim fix is already underway for a problem they say started seven years ago.

These 300 gallon solar hot water tanks have not been keeping pace with usage at Mayor Wright homes, to the point that hot water is in rare supply, with availability being intermittent and the temperature going to tepid or even cold quickly during high-use times or cloudy days.

The community has been increasingly vocal with lawmakers about this and other issues, and invited the governor to see for himself, which he did today."It boils down to health and safety, sanitation, condition of living yeah?” said Fetu Kolio, president of the tenant association."

We are taking some funds from some projects, we're doing some shifting, so that this is on the top of the list,” said Denise Wise of the Hawaii Public Housing Authority.

A nearly $800,000 project already underway has installed gas-fired tank-less backup water heaters to about 25 percent of units so far.

Meanwhile the solar system is being evaluated for repair versus replacement. At the capitol today, a measure passed to establish minimum rent for public housing and allow the housing authority to assess a community facility maintenance fee.