Practically the first place David Gierlach headed after stepping off the plane here 30 years ago was Hale Mohalu, the Pearl City residence for Hansen’s disease patients targeted for demolition. Not long after that, he was in Chinatown joining in with the protest against evictions there.
It was clear that Gierlach, 54, has a heart for social issues. Some he pursued while he was an attorney, litigating cases against police corruption in Hawaii County, and against priests accused of child molestation.
Now he’s back near Chinatown, with a new vocation, as parish priest at St. Elizabeth Episcopal Church. The law practice is being closed so he can focus entirely on that, and on his newest volunteer position: chairman of the state’s Hawaii Public Housing Authority.
Gierlach found himself drawn into that role after hearing about how long residents at Mayor Wright Homes, including some of his parishioners, had to wait for repairs of the project’s hot-water system. He acknowledges the scope of the challenge the state faces in bringing all of its public housing units into decent condition.
Gierlach is nothing if not resilient. He is now happily married with two young kids, a grown child and stepchild — however, when his first wife died of cancer at age 39, he had to come through a period of disillusionment and estrangement from his faith.
"Eventually I came to a sense of peace and eventually what I came to see was it wasn’t God who took her; disease happens," he said. "Life happens. What I came to see was that every step of the way, God was with me."
QUESTION: How did reading about the condition of Mayor Wright Homes pull you into working with the Hawaii Public Housing Authority?
ANSWER: When I read that, I was just beside myself. Our church was beside itself.
Q: Are some of your members residents of Mayor Wright? It’s really close.
A: Yes. It’s right across the street. It wasn’t the Mayor Wright residents who were outraged. They’re beaten down too much. It was our old-time members who couldn’t believe it. So we did a couple of petition drives, and a letter-writing campaign to Gov. (Linda) Lingle that went unanswered. So then we went and picketed in front of Washington Place. And then we rounded up a bunch of folks and went to the Legislature and handed out bumper stickers to every legislator that said, "Hot water for our babies, please." And then the governor (Neil Abercrombie) got involved. And he was as outraged as I was. And he immediately got it fixed. And then came the invitation — no good deed goes unpunished! — of "Would you mind sitting on the board?"
Q: The departure of HPHA Director Denise Wise: Any back story there?
A: No. Her letter of resignation was unsolicited and was entirely her own initiative. And I take her at her word that she just wants to move on.
Q: So, what’s the game plan now going forward?
A: We met (Oct. 6) in a special meeting to move quickly and diligently to get a new executive director. This is the first year in way too long that Hawaii Public Housing has received the monies that it’s requested. The governor sought and the Legislature appropriated about $78.5 million in capital improvement funds. … Obviously we need to spend that money and spend it responsibly. And in order to do that we need a new executive director. So we already have a task force appointed and we are keeping our fingers crossed that we’ll have a new E.D. by the start of the new year.
Q: It’s a national search?
A: We’re going to start statewide and see what that gets us, and if we need to go national, we will. But I’m confident that we can get somebody from Hawaii. I hope so, anyway.
Q: How bad, relative to other states, is our public housing?
A: I’m new to this game, so I don’t know how we compare. I was fortunate to meet with Secretary (Shaun) Donovan of HUD (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development). When he came through here, he toured Mayor Wright with the governor and a number of the other folks involved. And I think there’s reason to be optimistic that there can be funds available to, hopefully, remake Mayor Wright so that the people that need to be in that place are living in much better, safe, sanitary, decent housing, as HUD promises. I’m hoping, we’re looking very closely at public-private partnership, hopefully some kind of mixed use which, in places on the mainland, seems to work better, where you’re not ghettoizing poor people. And, you know, with rail coming through, it’s a chance to remake Palama for the better of everybody, I think.
But there’s often not public support for this. When I read some of your articles about public housing, it’s kind of sad to read some of the comments of people who say, "They should be grateful they have a roof over their head — why are they complaining about rats?"
Q: Is privatization the model? To what extent should the state be the landlord?
A: That really is what’s front and center before this board. It’s been the subject of just about every board meeting, to get a handle on what’s the proper balance between private involvement and public ownership. Clearly, strictly government ownership doesn’t seem to have worked too well. So maybe some kind of combination of the two will work better. That’s what we’re looking at.
And results matter to me. So it’s really important to me that decisions get made and goals get accomplished. And Mayor Wright is right at the top of our list.
Q: By mixed use, do you mean a mix of rental rates, or a mix of residential with commercial tenants?
A: We’re looking at both of those kinds of options. I forget how many acres Mayor Wright is, but something like 34 acres, a good chunk of property. At this point they’re all just two-story buildings. So, nobody’s looking at giant high-rises; that, I think, has been tried and failed all over the place. But there is room to go up. And there is room to look at retail and, if not market (priced), maybe affordable rentals. This way if we could provide housing to people who were there and need it and hopefully add to that inventory and still have market or different aspects of society all living in the same area, that seems to help preserve and maintain neighborhoods.
Q: How did you come to the Episcopal priesthood from your law practice?
A: I was Roman Catholic growing up and went to the Maryknoll seminary after college. I did my graduate work with Maryknoll. After I did my graduate work, they told me they really meant it about celibacy, and I decided it wasn’t for me. (Laughs.) So, I made that decision (to leave the seminary) when I was in language school, down in Bolivia. I ended up here, with a cousin who was a former Maryknoll priest who had been in the Philippines for 17 years, had been deported by Marcos. … He was here in Hawaii because there was such a large Filipino community. … When I got off the plane, the first place I went was Hale Mohalu, with the Hansen’s disease patients, in Pearl City. That was ’81. The patients were very happy to give this haole boy right off the plane a big bowl of poi, and sat with me to make sure that I ate every drop of it. … I was a Vista volunteer when I first came here, working in Chinatown with Joy Wong and May Lee with the People Against Chinatown Evictions, and then went to Hina Mauka where I was a drug counselor for five years, and left as the deputy director. And then I went to law school.
Q: What got you to law school?
A: Getting burned out doing drug counseling. And always my goal when I was growing up was to be a lawyer-priest. … I wanted to do inner-city poverty law. Having left the seminary I couldn’t do both, so I went to law school.
Q: Do you have a favorite case?
A: Our best case was on the Big Island, when we did the (suit over the) police promotion-fixing — handing guys in the bathroom the answers to the questions before they took the test. The jury came back with a $6 million award. That’s where the law’s doing something that’s really good, because that kind of corruption really stank.
Q: Wasn’t the Kamehameha Schools lawsuit over reorganizing the trust a big case for you?
A: Yeah, we represented Lokelani Lindsey (who was ultimately removed as a trustee).
Q: What do you have to say about that case?
A: I really liked Loke, as a person. I found her to, despite the whole world crashing in on her, to be of good humor. And I understand how people felt, about all of the trustees and all the kinds of things they were doing. But one of the things that I learned early in law school was that everybody’s entitled to a lawyer, and I took that really seriously. It’s almost especially the people who are despised by the majority; most especially, they need somebody to stand with them. I have no regrets about that. As a lawyer, it was a great opportunity. It was a six-month trial — nobody does those kinds of trials anymore.
Q: Was that the primary lesson from that, that things are complicated and everyone deserves a defense?
A: Absolutely. Yes, things are complicated. And, as it’s commonly said, we have the worst system in the world, except when compared to any other system. My own experience is generally things seemed to work in our legal system, in the long run.
Q: About the molestation cases you’ve litigated: How does this leave you feeling about the Catholic Church?
A: I guess for me what’s been most distressing in a number of these cases has been the knowledge of higher-ups that’s then been covered up. I understand that any organization can have people that have serious psychological issues, and that includes the priesthood. But it’s incumbent on the people in charge to make sure that the most vulnerable are protected, and that’s what didn’t happen. Too often, for too long, they were protecting the priests at the expense of children.