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Is public housing being maximized in Hawaii’s homeless crisis?

KHON News; Gina Mangieri; 7/22/15

KHON News

With homelessness becoming ever more apparent on the streets of Honolulu, are all possible places being used that could house these individuals and families?

Always Investigating uncovered the details and found some significant changes in direction when it comes to low-income housing.

We took a look at every state-owned and Honolulu-County-owned low-income unit to see what’s not being used, and discovered along the way some big shifts in how government plans to deal with its inventory.

The homeless problem may be most visible in places like Kakaako’s tent city, which seems to expand by the day. It’s hard to see from that just how many people the public housing system is taking in.

“In the homeless population in the last couple of years, we housed a little over 4,000 individuals,” said Hakim Ouansafi, executive director of the state Hawaii Public Housing Authority. “That includes families with children as well as single members.”

Despite the thousands they have helped, the number of homeless on the street is still the thousands and growing.

“Getting the units compared to the demand,” Ouansafi said, “is just overwhelming.”

It’s an overwhelming churn of a housing crisis that no one can seem to solve.

But are all units possible being lived in? Always Investigating scoured each and every state and Honolulu County public housing unit’s status to find out how many are empty and why.

Within the state’s inventory of about 6,000: 239 are completely offline for major construction, another 175 are vacant for minor repairs. That’s actually way down from the 875 units empty as of a few years ago when the current housing director took the job.

Always Investigating asked, “For years vacancy was a chronic issue, broken-down units, what are you doing to change that?”

“I was told it was going to be bad, but I found out it was worse than bad,” Ouansafi said. “There were units that were vacant for 10 to 12 years, so we were able to immediately attack that.”

With more staff, contractors and money, what used to take three and a half years to reconstruct now can take as little as six months, even for major rebuilding like what’s happening in Palolo Valley.

Elsewhere, vacancies between tenants in ready-to-go units can flip in a few as seven days. That used to be 260 days.

The state wait list is 11,000 names long.

“Three years ago we had 25,000 people on the wait list,” Ouansafi said. “Now that we’re running only two-percent vacancy based on available units, it will probably take us around seven to eight years to be able to serve everybody else.”

That could come way down soon as places like Mayor Wright or School Street about quadruple in size with redevelopment, adding a net 2,000 units within about five years. Plus, Ouansafi envisions another 8,000 state units along the rail line.

“It will take an aggressive increase of inventory,” Ouansafi said, “not just us for federal housing, but affordable housing in general, private developers and others.”

Others including the city, where out of about 1,200 units they’ve got a whole 29-unit site down for reconstruction at Winston Hale another six to nine months from done, another set of units in conversion at Pauahi Hale as it transitions to Mental Health Kokua’s management, and another 22 vacant units across various other city sites.

Always Investigating discovered a major shift in priorities in the city amid the housing crisis. We have learned the city will be hanging on to its county-owned buildings after a deal to sell them all fell apart last year and was originally heading for a rebid.

We asked: A year ago, the city was going to get out of the affordable housing business in terms of the units. That deal (with buyer Honolulu Affordable Housing Partners LLC) didn’t go through, what’s the status of it now? Does the city still intend to sell its collection of affordable units at this point?

“Currently, we are not making that a priority to sell those units at this time,” said Sandy Pfund of the mayor’s Strategic Development Office.

That’s because the city’s biggest push right now is on adding capacity in what officials call a “scattered site approach,” or deploying units quickly in many places, like converted shipping container homes on Sand Island by this fall.

“We are looking at putting pockets of affordable housing in various areas of need,” Pfund said, “and not to impact unduly any one particular neighborhood.”

The city has $32 million this year and $32 million next year to spend on capital projects targeted toward alleviating homelessness, including offers officials say they’re about to make for things like small apartment buildings.

“Acquiring small walk-up buildings, maybe 15-30-unit buildings,” Pfund explained. “Even walk-ups are not going to be cheap. Their minimum, we’ll be lucky if we can get $200,000 a unit.”

The city has already bought the Family Justice Center which the Prosecutor’s Office will manage as a domestic abuse temporary shelter. There’s Halewaiolu, 151 units of new senior housing coming to Chinatown, and the city is looking toward Aiea to do something similar.

Then there are thousands more envisioned along the rail route under what’s called “transit oriented development.” An estimated 52,000 units of all prices will pop up along rail and “we’d like to see 20 to 30 percent of those be affordable units,” said Harrison Rue, transit-oriented development administrator for the city.

When asked how that can be controlled, he explained, “We do have a draft proposal that will be going to council sometime soon in the next couple months to include an inclusionary housing percentage requirement.”

Much will be on the private market. Some of that will be public-private partnerships on city-owned land to keep market costs low, and others will be state-city developed to create the biggest jump in publicly owned housing numbers in generations.

“Our asset folks are looking at any city land where it’s possible to make a deal happen by contributing city land,” Rue said. “We’re working with the state to look at areas where there is state land to actually build more affordable housing.”

“Within the next five years, we will either start construction or complete or do an RFQ (request for quotation) of a total of 10,000 units,” Ouansafi said, with most of those coming along the rail line.

Beyond county and state housing, privately owned units whether rentals of rooms and cottages or apartments, serve 6,000 people with Section 8 vouchers, but even those holding the full-payment rent coupons run into unwilling landlords.

“These are folks that we guarantee payment with federal money. We pay on time, but they’re having an extremely hard time finding somebody who will accept them,” Ouansafi said. “We have 200 people on the street with Section 8 vouchers but they cannot find housing. I think the mentality of our community has to change, not in my house, not in my backyard.”

But it may be backyards across Oahu that could most quickly solve the problem.

“If we’ve got one silver bullet in the whole island-wide strategy,” Rue said, “it’s really the accessory dwelling units.”

These are units the city could soon legalize that would allow homeowners to build on their own spare space to rent. The accessory dwelling unit bill, Bill 20, will be up for hearing in the Honolulu City Council zoning committee on Thursday, July 23.

“It allows anybody to do this. The person who lives there, (who) owns the building, is the one who is renting it, so it is well-maintained, well-managed,” Rue said, “and it helps the owner provide some income on their mortgage.”

The ADU movement could turn an estimate 105,000 qualifying households into backyard- or second-story-addition landlords, helping one by one to make a bigger dent against homelessness that strikes people from all walks of life.

“This is a true story. A 14-year-old saying this is the first time they had an actual roof over their head, and they’re 14 years old. It’s heartbreaking,” Ouansafi said. “The basic human necessity is to have a roof over your head and until we achieve that, we have failed as a community, all of us combined.”

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