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New ideas for public housing

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Occupants of public housing in Hawaii have tolerated structural deterioration and intermittent hot water—or none at all—for decades. The state’s efforts to properly maintain its properties have proven a chronic failure. And with the government scraping for every dime, creative ideas to attack this problem are sorely needed.

Here’s one: A proposal by the Obama administration would allow housing authorities receiving federal subsidies to use equity loans to pay for repairs, like private homeowners do.

In a survey taken earlier this month, state Rep. Karl Rhoads found nearly 70 percent of the Mayor Wright public housing complex’s buildings lacked reliable hot water, even though Hawaii Public Housing Authority officials have been working on temporary fixes since 2007.

Fetu Taua Kolio, president of the Mayor Wright tenant association, says the hot-water problem has existed for eight of the 10 years he has lived there. Many people are hesitant to report problems from fear that they will be evicted for complaining.

A major overhaul of pipes and plumbing connected to the 364 apartments has been estimated to cost $7 million—"a very long-term, expensive project," according to Alan Sarhan, the authority’s chief planner. It’s understandable that the long-suffering residents would believe "very long-term" actually means "never." And that’s unacceptable.

The problem is nationwide and the lines of people awaiting public housing vacancies have grown during the recession. Public housing programs have a backlog of unmet capital needs as high as $30 billion, according to Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan. He told The Washington Post that 150,000 units of affordable housing have been lost in the past decade. Typically, a housing authority demolishes or sells deteriorated properties because it can’t afford to make needed repairs.

The proposal by HUD would allow a housing authority to dip into a project’s equity during bad times to make repairs and then pay it off when the economy improves. Housing authorities turning to private financing would be required to submit 20-year contracts and agree to any extension offered by HUD. The proposal has its skeptics, including affordable-housing advocates who fear the properties eventually could be lost to private entities, just as private property is foreclosed. They also express concern that a future, less committed administration would allow properties to fall into private ownership.

Even so, this idea and other public-private arrangements should be considered. The need is too great, and public coffers too lean.

Hawaii has more than $300 million in urgent capital needs for public housing, and that is not likely to decline in the foreseeable future. More than 20,000 Hawaii residents live in public housing, each paying up to 30 percent of the household’s income. That totals $18.5 million a year, less than half the total operating budget. None of that goes to capital improvements, which are expected to cost $1 billion over the next 30 years.

The Obama initiative may not be the best or only method of dealing with this problem. But given the deplorable conditions of public housing, surely it’s worth testing.


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