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State public housing agency's process misunderstood

LAST UPDATED: 5:45 p.m. HST, Aug 5, 2011

The Hawaii Public Housing Authority (HPHA) is the state's largest residential landlord, providing subsidized housing to more than 15,000 residents in over 6,200 units statewide. Recent confusion and misunderstanding regarding our capital planning compels me to explain our planning process.

A Star-Advertiser editorial describing the repair and maintenance (R&M) backlog at Mayor Wright Homes ("State owes Mayor Wright tenants," Our View, April 25) correctly noted: "Fully addressing those (R&M) 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."

In addressing the R&M backlog, identified in excess of $350 million in 2007, HPHA relies on capital improvement program funds provided by the Legislature and federal Capital Fund Program money at approximately $12 million.

But in a subsequent commentary apparently prompted by the editorial ("Public housing agency is cause of public housing woes," Island Voices, Star-Advertiser), state Rep. Rida Cabanilla asserted that HPHA's failure to repair and maintain facilities results from violation of HRS 356D-43 — and that is not accurate. HRS 356D-43 applies only to 864 state low-income public housing units, two-thirds of which are designated for elderly tenants and do comply with the statute. In addition to state units, HPHA manages more than 5,300 federal low-income public housing units and more than 1,700 Section 8 housing choice vouchers. State family public housing units comprise less than 5 percent of HPHA's public housing inventory.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has long recognized the difficulty inherent in managing public housing properties; therefore, it provides a per-unit subsidy to supplement rent proceeds.

This operating subsidy is necessary for properties to break even and prevents further deferred maintenance issues since rents are income-based — limited to 30 percent of household income.

HPHA receives no operating subsidy from the state for state units, despite similar income limits, so break-even is much more difficult. As of April 30, rent collection for state properties averaged 97 percent, an increase in collection rates from previous years.

Last biennium, HPHA was appropriated $20 million per fiscal year, which was outstripped by our needs and resulted in deferral of critical R&M needs. We currently anticipate more than $78 million in CIP funds this upcoming biennium, which illustrates the governor's and Legislature's understanding of the issues faced by the agency.

HPHA is not aware of Rep. Cabanilla's source indicating that rents cover only 43 percent of operating expenses. Also, the agency previously stated back rents in excess of $1.44 million; as of April 30, back rents totaled $218,236, a significant improvement from previous years.

Regardless, our R&M backlog cannot be attributed to 5 percent of units failing to break even; it is a direct result of unfunded CIP requests over several biennia.

Regarding Rep. Cabanilla's legislative proposals, HPHA's opposition never reflected disagreement with the intent behind her suggestions — rather, agency staff agrees with and is acting on her proposals through our 356D delegated powers. For example, the HPHA board adopted a resolution this February authorizing the executive director to set minimum rents in state units over the next three to five years.

HPHA appreciates the opinion expressed by Rep. Cabanilla, who is considered a strong legislative ally; her public housing goals are consistent with HPHA's.

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