Monday, February 16, 2009

Honolulu Advertiser: Bill targets housing authority

Lawmakers want more oversight for troubled public housing facilities

Lawmakers are considering appointing a special master and an advisory council to oversee rehabilitation of public housing projects in the Islands — a move the state attorney general says could cause conflict with the existing public housing director and board.

State Sen. Norman Sakamoto, chairman of the Education and Housing Committee, says Senate Bill 734 is meant to keep the housing authority on track to revamp an aging public housing inventory that has hundreds of millions of dollars in backlogged maintenance needs.

He added the measure is not meant to usurp the Hawai'i Public Housing Authority, but to supplement the work being done to tackle the longstanding problems at public housing during tough fiscal times.

The bill, which has passed through the Education and Housing Committee, is largely in reaction to a recent federal court class-action lawsuit against the public housing authority, which says conditions at Kuhio Park Terrace in Kalihi are well below substandard and points to broken elevators, water heaters and sewage lines. Sakamoto said the suit likely will result in the court appointing a special master of its own.

But he said there's no reason to wait for that.

"This is sort of trying to be proactive," he said.

The bill comes as the public housing authority is in the midst of a turnaround plan aimed at repairing vacant units, addressing health and safety needs, and improving rent collection, among other things.

Public housing officials are also considering redevelopment proposals for projects in the worst shape, including Kuhio Park Terrace.

State Attorney General Mark Bennett, in testimony to the Senate Education and Housing Committee, said recent momentum to improve conditions at public housing could be lost if a new layer of decision-makers is added to the mix. He also said confusion could ensue.

"The bill, in effect, creates another system to deal with issues that come under the purview of ... (the housing authority) and its board of directors," Bennett said, in his testimony. "This could lead to much confusion and conflict and delay the intended results for the benefit of public housing tenants."

Chad Taniguchi, executive director of the housing authority, also opposes the special master and advisory council proposal. "The primary thing that we need is ... funds," he said, "rather than a master to tell us what to do."

The bill says that the special master, chosen by a committee of legislators, and the advisory council would "ensure a timely response ... in resolving the health and safety violations at public housing projects."

The special master and council would help oversee work at public housing projects starting in the coming fiscal year, then cease to exist in 2013. It was unclear how much the creation of the special master position and all-volunteer advisory council would cost.

The measure has support from Lawyers for Equal Justice, which helped file the class-action lawsuit on behalf of residents at Kuhio Park Terrace and Kuhio Homes, a neighboring project. Elizabeth Dunne, senior staff attorney for the group, said in testimony that the significant problems at the projects are illustrative of "systemic" issues at the housing authority.

She said the special master and council are especially needed "given the immediacy and severity of these health and safety problems."

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