Saturday, August 15, 2009

Honolulu Advertiser Editorial: Tenant councils can boost residents' safety

August 12, 2009, Honolulu Advertiser

Tenants of public housing rent, rather than own, their dwellings, of course. But there's more than one kind of ownership to consider.

There's also the sense of empowerment that comes when the residents are involved in the process of making their community a healthy and safe place to live. These are people who can rightly claim credit for helping make housing a home.

Most recently, such an initiative has paid out dividends in neighborhood safety at Kalihi Valley Homes, where crime and property damage had been on the rise. Residents teamed up with police and managers to form a patrol that walks the project at nights, often making its rounds after midnight to deter lawless behavior.

While it's early to issue any final findings, police have noted fewer trouble calls coming in from the large development.

That good news should encourage admirers at other lower-income projects to try to replicate that experience.

Unfortunately, resident involvement is a goal not fully realized for the Islands' public-housing communities. At Kuhio Park Terrace, for example, establishing an independent tenant council is one of the aims of lawsuits in federal and state courts over living conditions.

Residents clearly need an active association as a go-between, enabling tenants to relay their complaints to management in a setting where they are comfortable. Many tenants are intimidated and fear retribution, through eviction or other means, if they take complaints directly to managers.

Fewer than half of the 67 projects under the supervision of the Hawai'i Public Housing Authority have tenant associations that meet federal rules required to gain official recognition.

HPHA should help them attain that level. At KPT, the resident plaintiffs in the lawsuits are asking for staff help in getting an association organized. That would help to build a community that thrives on mutual engagement and support.

Further, the statewide public housing Resident Advisory Board has recommended in the authority's five-year plan that community patrols be enhanced with training. Authority officials agreed and pointed to police available for the training.

But it would make sense for the state agency to encourage and enable tenant involvement more actively. Budget problems may make that seem difficult, but in fact making the effort to enlist the help of tenants — the people with the greatest incentive to be engaged — should be treated as an investment that can pay off with neighborhoods of safer and happier homes.

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