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Denise Wise

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About 20,000 people live in one of 6,200 government-subsidized apartments that come under the management of the Hawaii Public Housing Authority, the state agency Denise Wise now heads as executive director. Wise, at left, said Hawaii's service-based economy means salaries are too low for many families to afford market-priced rentals.

Denise Wise walked into her new post as director of the Hawaii Public Housing Authority and confronted a full in-box.

Since her arrival in March, Wise had to deal with multiple problems in rapid succession: gang-related violence at Kalihi Valley Homes; the burden of ongoing repairs to Kuhio Park Terrace, the state’s largest housing project that is targeted for privatization and redevelopment; and, most recently, complaints by many Mayor Wright Housing residents that a lack of hot water had become the standard condition.

All of these problems remain, but there has been progress. Kalihi Valley instituted a temporary curfew program, which enjoyed such resident support that the agency will soon start developing permanent rules to make public housing complexes safer.

Wise, a California native who came to Hawaii from a similar post in Colorado, hopes to bring some resolution to the managerial conflicts within the state’s public housing program. In the past decade, oversight has been divided between her agency, which deals with housing management, and the Hawaii Housing Finance and Development Corp., which builds—and rebuilds—subsidized housing capacity.

Even more problematic: Wise is only the latest in a string of public housing chiefs in recent years—eight since 1998, the latest being Chad Taniguchi. All of that turnover, she said, has crippled the agency’s continuity and efficiency. The new boss seeks to change that culture.

The overarching mission, she said, is to help Hawaii’s lower-income residents have housing that is "safe, decent and sanitary," the bottom line set in Department of Housing and Urban Development federal rules. In high-priced Hawaii, she said, even that’s a struggle.

QUESTION: When you started here, what were the challenges that set Hawaii’s public housing challenges apart from your past experiences?

ANSWER: I think what I walked into was something of an exhausted agency, an agency that’s trying to keep up, and, as a result of many factors—furloughs, budgets, not being able to fill staff positions that have been vacant—and with all that happening, still trying to maintain units, keep the day-to-day going. Unusual? To a degree, from the perspective of having furloughs, which means that you can’t fill some positions.

Q: But the problems predated all that.

A: That’s true. This didn’t start yesterday, but they were further exacerbated by that.

Q: How is the plan going to have a private partner redevelop Kuhio Park Terrace?

A: It’s moving. Michaels Development of New Jersey was awarded that bid. In moving that initiative forward, they did apply to HHFDC (the Hawaii Housing Finance and Development Corp.) for tax credits and bonds. We’re not going to know if that’s going to be funded until toward the end of the year. We put out a request for proposals for legal services to work us through that process, because it’s more definitive legal services that we need. … From that perspective, we’re stepping it forward. Hopefully, the application from Michaels, we’ll know about it being funded by the end of this year. If so, and everything else is in lockstep, they project a timeline of being able to start the renovations beginning in March of 2011.

Q: Do you think this privatization and redevelopment model is workable for other aging properties in the public housing inventory?

A: It could be. But … we were very ambitious because we started with our largest property. What I want to do is get several months under our belt once that gets rolling to see if we can handle it. What I don’t want to do is … take on another ambitious project too soon and outstrip all our resources.

Q: So there’s going to be a lot of basic patching going on in the meantime?

A: One of the things we’re pretty unique in is our developments are very dense … and just through wear and tear, things start to break. This is deferred maintenance not for just five years but from some time ago. You can tell by the type of capital improvements we have to make. The stock is really old.

We’re in the process right now of prioritizing the capital improvements, and the one thing almost without exception that we need to do is new roofs. … To do a renovation and not to do new roofs is throwing money away.

Q: Isn’t the reroofing program among repairs already being planned?

A: Reroofing is on some of them. We may have to shift some priorities. We’re taking a look at what’s the best way to attack these problems, what’s the best way of putting these dollars to use that really addresses some of these systemic issues we’re dealing with.

Q: How are you approaching the replacement of failed solar-water systems at Mayor Wright with the tankless water heaters?

A: What we’re doing is taking a look at the most decrepit ones that we know are going to fail pretty quickly and going through and replacing them. We’ve had some that actually started leaking, and then that compromises the roof. Replacing them with the tankless costs $620,000, versus what was initially suggested. To replace the solar system with a like system it was going to come to $7 million. What we’re trying to do is take care of a longstanding problem in the most efficient manner we can, with the dollars that we have.

Q: How do you answer remarks that public-housing residents shouldn’t complain about the conditions, given that the units are so heavily subsidized?

A: I guess the way that I look at that is people have a right to live in a safe, decent or sanitary place, irrespective of their socioeconomic class. We’re still a very large landlord. I take our role very seriously. We haven’t done a very good job, obviously. It’s one of those things where it’s nobody’s fault, and it’s everybody’s. … I’m sure that whoever sat here before me did the best job they could with what they have, but it wasn’t enough. I’m not sure if it’s ever going to be enough, given the density that we have.


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