BY JIM DOOLEY – Over the last five years, an independent contractor who annually inspected a troubled state affordable housing project on Maui made only passing references to the ever-rising vacancy rate at the complex, according to copies of the inspection reports.
The most recent report, written in February, said nothing at all about vacancies at Honokowai Kauhale, even though more than a third of project’s 184 units by then had been empty for months and even years.
The state won’t release the findings of a special visit to the project last month by the same inspector, Lois Churchill of Spectrum Enterprises, Inc., citing an exception to the state’s open records law.
In August, the state acknowledged to Hawaii Reporter that nearly 40 per cent of the apartments at Honokowai Kauhale were unoccupied: 37 were ready for tenancy and 32 were in need of repair.
Kent Miyasaki, spokesman for the property owner, the Hawaii Housing Finance and Development Corp., said in August that the agency was unaware of the high vacancy rate at Honokowai Kauhale until questioned about it by Hawaii Reporter.
The agency has since ordered that rental rates be lowered for the vacant units but increased by two per cent for the apartments that have been occupied by the same tenants since November 2008.
In response to news stories, residents’ complaints and inquiries from legislators, HHFDC executive director Karen Seddon ordered Churchill last month to conduct a “compliance audit” of conditions at Honokowai Kauhale.
The report of her findings was completed late last month, but Seddon has refused to release it, citing a section of state law which imposes confidentiality to “avoid the frustration of a legitimate government function.”
Seddon did release Spectrum Reports written from 2006-2010 by Churchill after blacking out sections of the documents which identified the specific units inspected by Churchill. Seddon also assessed $62.50 in processing and copying fees before releasing the reports.
Churchill’s company is based in Maine and is under contract with housing agencies around the country to provide inspection and auditing services.
Her reports on Honokowai Kauhale show that each year, she inspected 20 per cent of some 110 apartments at the project which were available to tenants whose income levels qualified them for a financial “rental assistance program.”
Glenn Ishikawa, a former maintenance supervisor at Honokowai Kauhale, said that he accompanied Churchill on her annual site inspections.
“She randomly selected apartments, giving us a list of the ones she wanted to see, but she never went into vacant units,” said Ishikawa.
“If a unit wasn’t rented, she wouldn’t go in,” said Ishikawa.
It’s not clear if keeping track of vacancies was part of Churchill’s duties, although she noted in her 2006-10 reports that unspecified numbers of units were “down” (unoccupied) because of leaky roofs.
“Units are down due to active roof leaks in several buildings. The count of down units is now at least ten (10), according to on-site management staff, Churchill wrote in 2006.
She made exactly the same finding in 2007.
In 2008, Churchill reported that “units are down due to active roof leaks and/or mold in several buildings. The count of down units is now at least seventeen.”
The following year, Churchill found that leaky roofs had been repaired.
“However,” she reported, “we note that several other buildings now have units down due to roof issues.”
Last year, Churchill reported: “No additional roof repairs have been done since the 2009 inspection. Units are down in buildings 1, 8, 10, 11, 16, and 17 due to roof leaks. When is additional work planned?”
Ishikawa told Hawaii Reporter that even in buildings where the roofs had been repaired units were still unoccupied 18 months later because the resident manager hadn’t approved final minor repairs like “replacing a cabinet door or hanging a bedroom door.”
The report written by Churchill about her February 2 site visit this year was silent on the issue of vacancies, but noted that “no additional roof repairs have been done since the 2009 inspection.”
She said she was told that “additional repairs will be done in 2011.”