Sunday, June 7, 2009

Advertiser Editorial: All stakeholders must press for KPT repairs

After touring the Kuhio Park Terrace and Kuhio Homes housing project Thursday, state lawmakers are calling for a hearing into conditions at the Kalihi public housing project. And they promised residents they would press the Hawai'i Public Housing Authority to address deplorable health, safety and maintenance issues that have plagued the project for years.

It's a welcome call for action. Lifting the public housing project from its deep decline will take effort from all stakeholders — the Housing Authority, state lawmakers, residents, community leaders and more.

Sen. Donna Mercado Kim and Rep. Joey Manahan, who represent the Kalihi district, visited Kuhio Park Terrace residents featured in The Advertiser's editorials last Sunday who spoke about the years, if not decades, of neglect — chronically broken elevators that have forced disabled tenants to take the stairs, resulting in falls and injuries; unsafe aging stairwells; infestations of insects, rats and bedbugs; a lack of proper fire safety equipment; a lack of hot water; and trash chutes boarded up with plywood posing health and safety risks.

The state now faces two class-action lawsuits, one in state Circuit Court and the other in federal District Court, that seek improvements in living conditions. The federal case claims the state and the management company are in violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act.

Kim and Manahan both expressed deep frustration that improvements had not been made, despite the Legislature allocating funds years ago for some of the repairs.

That frustration is justified. While the problems span several administrations and lawmaking sessions, health and safety conditions there must be immediately addressed. Otherwise, glaring liability issues could leave taxpayers paying for the cost of that inaction.

Chad Taniguchi, executive director for the Hawai'i Public Housing Authority, which oversees the federally backed project, said the state has made progress. Two of the water boilers have been replaced. Elevators will be replaced incrementally, with the first two done next April and all of them completed in May 2011. Fire alarms should be completed in December and garbage chutes should be repaired by 2010.

Kim was far from impressed.

"I'm very frustrated and irritated with the attitude and the way Kuhio Park Terrace has been managed. This administration has been there for six years. The management company has been there over 13 years, since 1996, and yet we have the same problems," Kim said.

"We gave them the money in 2007, $500,000 to fix the trash chutes. It's a health hazard, it's very dangerous — and they haven't fixed it. They've finally gone out to bid and now they say it's going to take 10 months, sometime in 2010, which probably means at least a year — hopefully it's going to get fixed correctly."

The Hawai'i Housing Authority has had five directors in the past seven years. Taniguchi, who has held the job since 2007, said he had not heard about some of the complaints outlined by tenants. But Robert Faleafine, head of the management company, Realty Laua LLC, acknowledged many of these problems have persisted since the 1990s.

These problems surely are a red flag, and should prompt the state to thoroughly review its management contract to ensure taxpayers are indeed getting what they pay for. The three-year contract costs roughly $9 million. The company has had the contract since 1996. It's been renewed several times since.

"I grew up in public housing... I know about public housing, I feel for tenants. I sympathize with their situation. We make the most absolute effort to try to get to every single tenant's issue," Faleafine said.

Faleafine rightly points out that residents must take greater responsibility, citing residents who urinate in stairwells.

That's true. But pride of ownership would be helped enormously by providing clean, safe living conditions. While rents are subsidized, some tenants pay more than $900 a month.

Taniguchi defended the management company, stressing that Kuhio Park Terrace, built in the mid-1960s and the state's only high-rise housing project, is one of the most difficult properties to manage. "My sense is that Realty Laua is doing a good job," he said.

But the company's track record can't be ignored. In fact, when the state attempted to hire Faleafine in 2004 as manager of all of Hawai'i's 16,000 public housing units, a federal official stepped in and blocked the hire, citing KPT's broken fire protection system that had existed for years as one reason for its decision.

Indeed, longtime tenants will tell you the problems span years, if not decades.

Katherine Vaiola has lived in the complex since 1976 and in her current apartment since 1993. Vaiola, who had one of her legs amputated five years ago and has been forced to live in the kitchen area of her two-story unit for years, cried upon meeting Manahan. She told him of calls to management for general maintenance that go unanswered. Vaiola, on the waiting list for a single-story unit for years, has not been able to access her bedroom and bathroom — both located on the second floor. She hasn't taken a bath in five years, resorting to sponge baths using the kitchen sink and a plastic portable toilet in her downstairs living area.

Tenants need a voice. A resident's association must be created to to provide a better venue for them to voice concerns. Such a group can help residents do their part to improve living conditions there, including reporting vandals and crime and other longstanding problems within the project. Taniguchi said work is underway to get this done.

But Housing Authority officials must ensure tenants are free from intimidation. Many tenants have expressed fear to The Advertiser and to state lawmakers that they would be evicted if they complain about conditions.

Manahan said there's a real fear among residents. "They're afraid to speak out; they're afraid to say anything because of fear of losing their units, they feel intimidated. They're told not to talk to anybody, not to talk to reporters, or talk to the attorneys representing them," Manahan said.

While touring the site, Kim pointed to a graveyard of broken refrigerators behind the complex and demanded that they be properly disposed of.

"So if a child gets in there and dies, we'll be responsible? That is not safe. We would not let this happen on a private property. This is unacceptable," Kim said.

She's right. Now that these issues are under a bright light, it's up to the state housing officials and state lawmakers — led by Kim and Manahan — to set a course that ensures the job gets done.

We know what the problems are. It's time to work together to make it right.

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