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Waipahu Towers residents celebrate renewal that preserves affordable rents

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    Ahe Group bought the low-income rental building Waipahu Towers last year from a financially struggling co-op of renter tenants. The building, with the parking structure at right, has since been renovated while remaining affordable for its tenants.


    Kingston Riley stands behind his great-grandmother, Judy Gonsalves, who is holding two great-grandchildren, Dolly Riley, left, and Honey Boy Riley, as great-grandchild Desire Soto hugs her. Miracle Soto stands to the right with Desire’s twin brother Dandre Soto, also standing, and Joy Soto, the Soto children’s mother, sitting on their couch. Joy is Judy’s granddaughter. The family lives in a two-bedroom unit that has been remodeled.

Judy Gonsalves feels blessed to have been saved twice from being homeless.

The first time was when she was allowed to move into the affordable rental apartment building Waipahu Towers in 2002.

The second time was when she and all her neighbors avoided Waipahu Towers falling into foreclosure last year.

On Thursday, a blessing was held for the 46-year-old building, which itself was saved twice from being removed from Hawaii’s short supply of housing for low-income residents.

“I’m so grateful for this place,” said Gonsalves, 67, who lives at Waipahu Towers with five other family members.

Waipahu Towers is celebrating a renewal that includes renovations and a commitment by its new owner, an affiliate of local development firm Ahe Group, to preserve affordable rents for 61 more years.

Makani Maeva, Ahe Group president and CEO, said older affordable-housing complexes in Waipahu and other areas around the city’s rail line in need of investment are susceptible to being converted to market-rate housing.

“In light of Hawaii’s housing and homeless crisis, it is essential that every existing affordable-housing unit is preserved and remains affordable for local residents,” she said.

Ahe Group held the blessing with representatives of the state who provided financing after completing renovation work that included new flooring, appliances, paint and fixtures inside apartments along with a new roof, meeting room, elevator, security cameras, paint and landscaping outside. Also, each unit was enlarged by enclosing balconies, and photovoltaic panels were added above a parking deck to save about $100,000 annually in electricity costs.

The transformation is a far cry from where the 64-unit property serving 180 residents was more than a year ago with delinquent debt and possible foreclosure.

Waipahu Towers, which is a single building at 94-337 Pupumomi St., was built in 1972. It was the first tower in Hawaii built by a private developer using Federal Housing Administration financing that required apartment rents to stay affordable for at least 20 years.

Federal rules imposed around 1990 required owners of buildings financed with such loans to offer the property first to tenants or a community nonprofit before seeking other buyers who might convert the property to market-priced housing.

To prevent the latter, renters at Waipahu Towers became members of a “limited-­equity housing cooperative” that bought the building in 1995 for $8 million and spent $2.7 million on renovations.

The nonprofit co-op, which required members to make a one-time $1,200 contribution that entitled them to rent an apartment, used three loans totaling $8 million plus a $4.4 million federal grant to help finance the building’s acquisition, rehabilitation and management.

The co-op also benefited from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Section 8 rental assistance program that supplements rental payments for many tenants so they didn’t pay more than 30 percent of their income for rent.

Yet even with all that help, the co-op fell behind on mortgage payments in recent years in large part because of difficulties ensuring everyone paid their rent.

Waipahu Towers resident Thomas Ventura, who has led the co-op’s board, said rent delinquencies reached about $100,000 at one point and utilities came close to being shut off several times.

“It’s a blessing that Makani took over,” he said. “We all would have been homeless.”

Gonsalves, who was also on the co-op board, expressed a similar sentiment. “This place was going to become a foreclosure and we would have been homeless,” she said.

Instead, co-op members sold their memberships for a couple thousand dollars as allowed under federal law and now they have renovated apartments. Ahe Group acquired the building and paid off the debt.

The Hawaii Housing Finance & Development Corp., a state agency that helps finance affordable housing, provided about $11 million in bonds and about $6 million in federal and state tax credits to finance the $17 million acquisition and renovation.

Monthly rents allowed by HHFDC are $1,826 for two-bedroom units and $1,550 for a pair of one-bedroom units. Section 8 rental assistance for many tenants covers any portion above 30 percent of their income, so tenants pay between $80 and $1,243.

“I treasure this place,” Gonsalves said. “It’s so beautiful. I love it.”

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