An interesting facet of Jane Sugimura’s personal history lies in her first name. It’s really Yuriko.
Her parents, interned at Manzanar War Relocation Center, moved to New Jersey where she was born; “Jane” was one of the Anglicized names one of her teachers handed out to her and several multi-ethnic classmates with names the teacher found unmanageable.
“Can you imagine what would happen if a teacher did that today?” asked Sugimura, whose name is known largely as president of the Hawaii Council of Associations of Apartment Owners.
The association has been active for years for its advocacy for condominium owners; like the Hawaii Chapter of the Community Associations Institute, it runs educational classes for those owners, who generally are unenlightened about the issues association boards face.
Lately the focus has been on the Honolulu City Council’s deliberations over Bill 69, an administration proposal made in the wake of a devastating fire at the Marco Polo condominium in which four people were killed. The bill, seeking a mandate for fire-control sprinkler systems for many buildings that went up before they were required, is currently on hold pending further study.
At 71, Sugimura still lives in the condo she bought in 1988 in Aiea’s Pearl 1 complex, where she is board president. She also is an owner in the Bougainville, nearby.
As an attorney, she handles business litigations, representing commercial landlords. She is active in Democratic Party politics; her sister-in-law, Yuki Lei Sugimura, sits on the Maui County Council.
But her public life has been focused on condominium issues, from the condominium lease-to-fee conversion battles of the 1990s to this year’s enactment of Act 81 to strengthen mediation as a means of resolving condo disputes.
Some lawmakers would like to make apartment board members get mandatory training and registration, but Sugimura thinks that’s counterproductive.
“We tell them, if you make board members register and, like a Realtor, go through classes, nobody’s going to serve,” she said. “Right now, it’s like pulling teeth getting people to serve. … It’s not what you call a pleasant job.”
Question: Do you think the Marco Polo fire signals the need for a change in fire regulations for older high-rises, or is risk acceptable under current law?
Answer: I can’t speak to whether the fire should result in changes to regulations for high-rises until after the Fire Department issues its report on the Marco Polo fire.
I would like to know, one, if the fire alarm system was working and if not, why not; two, what was the emergency evacuation plan for the building, including removal of disabled and people with mobility issues; three, why the people who died and were injured could not get out of the building.
I don’t believe that the risk of people getting injured is ever acceptable, and I believe that most associations and their managers are diligent in maintaining their buildings in a way to minimize risks that could occur.
Q: The City Council’s bill on the sprinkler-system mandate is on hold; what do you think about it?
A: Bill 69 that would require 300 high-rises to retrofit their buildings with sprinklers is not doable – even if allowed five years to complete.
There aren’t enough companies that could retrofit 300 buildings in five years. Each building is different and some will have asbestos and lead paint issues, which will increase the cost. I am informed that it will take 12-18 months to complete the retrofit to one building. Also, since no condo has money in its budget for retrofitting sprinklers, the association will have to borrow the funds and there not enough lenders in the state to finance those loans.
Twelve years ago, it would have cost $2.4 million to retrofit a 300-unit building. The cost today is likely two or three times that amount. And even with a loan, ultimately the cost to retrofit is paid by the condo owners. We don’t have issues with those parts of the bill that mandate emergency evacuation plans or fire drills.
Q: What maintenance issues are confronting owners of older condominiums today? Are most facing large assessments or higher monthly fees?
A: Many condos are over 30 years old and they face many challenges — spalling repairs and painting the building every seven to 10 years; roof repair or replacement; replacing clay pipes or other plumbing; replacing heat pumps and air conditioning equipment; replacing windows; elevator renovations and upgrades.
All of these require funding by the condo owners. Most condos that comply with the budget and reserves law (HRS 514B-148) have reserves for their deferred maintenance so that when the time comes, there will be sufficient funds to pay for the repair or replacement.
However, some items come as a total surprise: failure of clay pipes at 40 years when the useful life was 75 years. The cost to fix that failure came to $19 million and since no funds were in the budget, the cost was assessed among the unit owners.
Other factors affect the increase in monthly maintenance fees. The recent development in Kakaako and other sites have increased the cost of labor, parts and construction supplies, resulting in higher costs to repair and maintain condos than was previously budgeted.
Q: Do newer condominiums have any particular advantages or disadvantages? Structural improvements or reduced amenities?
A: I don’t believe that newer condos have any advantages or disadvantages. Because of the code change, they already have sprinklers and they have all the benefits of increased technologies. However, as they age, they will have the same issues as current condos about their deferred maintenance and that’s why they need to know about and comply with HRS 514B-148.
Q: How has the ownership landscape changed, with the advent of “condotels”? Older hotels are converting to the hybrid, but are existing condos?
A: I am not aware of changes in ownership as a result of condotels. Each condominium has a declaration that has a provision requiring a super majority (90-100 percent) of the ownership interest to change the use of the condo. So I don’t see condos changing their use to a hybrid. In fact, many residential condos have express provisions in their declaration prohibiting transient rentals of less than 30 days.
Q: How did your early condo ownership experience go for you?
A: My sister-in-law was the Realtor. I was right out of law school when I came to Hawaii. And I’m buying this condo, and she gives me this “assignment of lease.” And I said, “Where’s the lease? This is a three-page document and it talks about a lease, and the lease has the terms.” She said, “Well, nobody asks about the lease.”
And I say, “Um, I’m not an idiot. I can read this. I know what this is.” And she says, “But nobody asks for a lease.” I said, “I don’t care! … If I’m going to put out $100,000 for a condominium and mortgage my life” — I was young then —“I would like to know what I’m signing up for.”
Q: So there was little consciousness about that?
A: Right. … I got educated because they recruited me and I learned about this. I became a big advocate. So, Hawaii Council, I was the lead person in the Legislature to talk about leasehold conversion. And we got into all those fights with all the legislators …
Q: Even though the ordinance got repealed, it was upheld as constitutional?
A: Right. There’s nothing wrong with it, because the Supreme Court basically said that, “if the Legislature in Hawaii deems home ownership for an owner-occupant is a public purpose, we’re not going to touch it.” Because the whole thing was condemnation for public purpose. …
It was very emotional, and it involved a whole lot of people working very, very hard, into the night. … That’s how I got started.
Q: Do you think with all the condo construction coming that the influence of this sector will grow?
A: I don’t know if that will happen. I kind of would like to see it happen. But a condo is like a little city. And you can imagine the diverse views. And you have in-fighting in a condo. My big issue is condo dispute resolution. We’ve been working with the Legislature to resolve these issues cheaply and quickly.
You’re talking about a small area, where people see each other every day. You can’t have them fighting with each other.