At long last, Hawaii is moving toward a far better model of providing housing to its lowest-income residents than what the outdated Kuhio Park Terrace became: a tumble-down, crime-plagued disgrace.
At the time it was built in 1963, KPT was only one of many tower projects developed for needy renters in urban centers across the country. In the years to follow, the highrise approach, which brings many low-income families together in a centralized complex, was rejected in favor of creating more mixed-income developments. Cities nationwide started tearing down the big apartment buildings.
That could not be even the temporary solution here because for the residents of some 700 units in KPT and the adjacent low-rise Kuhio Homes complex, demolition would mean the real threat of homelessness. Honolulu’s inventory of affordable rentals falls far below the level needed to meet the need. So the incremental program of renovating the Kuhio complex in Kalihi, which was launched officially last week, is the right way to go.
The long-delayed $50 million renovation of the buildings, which will be owned by Michaels Development Co., should begin a new, more sustainable operation for families who for many years have complained about persistent leaks, dysfunctional elevators and myriad other problems. And the top three floors of Tower B will serve as a "hotel," housing residents while their units are redone, with final project completion set for the end of 2012.
The New Jersey firm Michaels Development has a good national reputation in this arena. Last December it drew top honors from the National Association of Home Builders as Multifamily Development Firm of the Year. Now its selection for this project, in partnership with the local office of Vitus Group, bodes well for the long-term success of what’s now been dubbed The Towers at Kuhio Park.
It’s gratifying to see the privatization of this development under way. It’s a partnership that works as long as three key elements are in place: government backing, professional private oversight and a compact with the tenants, who also have their own part to play.
The two state housing agencies coordinating the financing — the Hawaii Housing Finance and Development Corp. and the Hawaii Public Housing Authority — should give the needy families and housing advocates important government assurances. In particular, HPHA will retain title on the land and, through the terms in lease agreements, can see that the units remain affordable into the future.
Private management of what are now called public housing projects has worked well in Palolo and elsewhere, and now both the state and city seem to be accelerating this trend. Michaels’ management arm, Interstate Realty Management, will take over once everything’s rebuilt. These companies have an incentive to see that tenants are adequately screened and that rent is paid reliably, keeping the operation financially viable and ensuring timely maintenance of the property.
Finally, good managers should see that tenants are kept in the loop about their neighborhood, and held to account for their own actions. Residents can feel a sense of ownership if they’re part of developing their community activities and routines. Those who don’t bear up under this responsibility will find that others are ready and willing to take their place.
Hawaii, still struggling to develop a housing market within reach of its low-income work force, must work to close that gap for its poorest citizens. Public housing is rightly seen as part of its social safety net. But it serves nobody — not the taxpayers, not the tenants — if housing is mismanaged and money goes to waste. Everyone should benefit by this change in course, if it’s seen through to success 18 months from now.