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Steps Needed to Make Paradigm Shift in Public Housing

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By Lowell L. Kalapa
(Released on 8/16/09)

Over the past year one of the major Honolulu dailies has been spotlighting the plight of the state’s public housing inventory. From broken plumbing to broken elevators, most of the public housing facilities are in a terrible state of disrepair and deterioration.

Although recent litigation points the finger of blame at the current administration of the public housing agency, one has to admit that it has been a case of benign neglect over several decades. Unfortunately, public housing administrators over the last 50 years have not figured out what their mission is other than to provide housing for the poor and indigent. Thus, public housing became nothing more than a relationship between landlord and tenant. However, because the tenants are poor, public housing officials have been less than adamant as a landlord about collecting rent, allowing delinquencies to mount over the years.

While public housing officials may believe that they were being more sensitive to the challenges of the poor by allowing the delinquencies to occur, that act of lenience did more of a disservice to those families than if they had required the rent to be paid on a timely basis.

And that is really the paradigm shift that has to occur if officials are ever going to solve the dilemma of public housing in Hawaii. Public officials must recognize that those families that have qualified for public housing do not have the life skills that allow them to compete in the open housing market. Thus, if these families are ever to leave public housing, they must acquire those skills that will allow them to stand on their own two feet, to be self-sufficient. And for a vast majority of those in public housing this is possible. Certainly there are those who are in public housing who will never be able to acquire a job or be able to earn a level of income that will allow them to compete for market housing like the elderly or the disabled. But for many others, it is a matter of learning life skills, acquiring a skill that will enable them to compete for a job, having childcare or eldercare so that they can go to work, having good healthcare for themselves and their children, and having the financial literacy to earn and save.

The public housing authority is about to embark on a venture to rehabilitate and renovate the public housing inventory so that families can have a safe and decent place that they can call home. However, all of the millions of dollars poured into this effort will be for naught if officials do not also provide the support services for families in public housing that will enable them to move out in a few years.

In fact, for those who believe that the state needs to build more public housing, it should be made very clear that the state will never be able to build enough public housing to meet the current demand because the state just does not have the financial resources to do so. In fact, the state seemingly doesn’t have the resources to renovate what inventory they have now. Even if the public housing authority was able to fix the housing units they have now, there would still be a waiting list of applicants to get into public housing.

So how does the public housing authority create enough housing for those who want it? It is not a matter of inventory as much as it is a matter of capacity. That is, public housing should not be permanent housing for the vast majority of those currently living in public housing as well as those who are applying to live in public housing. Only by turning over the units can public housing create the capacity it needs to accommodate everyone who believes they need public housing assistance. This means eventually helping those who are in public housing to move out of public housing and into the open housing market.

Again, it is a matter of providing support – not a hand out, but a hand up – to families in public housing. It is also a matter of changing values and attitudes of those in public housing from one of entitlement to one of responsibility or “kuleana,” of recognizing that there are other families still on the waiting list that may be living on a beach or a park that need that public housing unit just as much as the family who is currently in public housing.

Although officials may believe that the problems in public housing can be solved by merely painting and patching the physical structures, the real solution involves “fixing” the families, social re-engineering, if you will, of the families who need a support system so they can one day give back to their community rather than merely take from the community. Anything short of providing support services to these families will doom whatever efforts are taken to “fix” the physical facilities of public housing.

Lowell L. Kalapa is the president of the Tax Foundation of Hawaii. Mr. Kalapa’s commentary is printed each week in the Maui News, West Hawaii Today, Garden Isle News, and the HawaiiReporter.com.

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