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Oops: County to pay for fixes at housing project

Updated: 
August 13, 2017 - 10:09am

KAILUA-KONA — The County of Hawaii is on the hook for improvements at a Kailua-Kona housing project years after discovering that sidewalks and showers aren’t compliant with federal accessibility guidelines.

The fixes will cost the county $160,000 to widen sidewalks and an undisclosed amount to remodel shower stalls in 43 units at the Ulu Wini Housing Project, also known as the Kaloko Housing Project.

Crews were busy this week pouring concrete for 17 sidewalks that connect units to storage areas at the development so as to comply with requirements of the federal Fair Housing Act.

“It’s been an ongoing problem,” said Neil Gyotoku, housing administrator at the county’s Office of Housing and Community Development. “Now we’re taking some action to deal with it.”

The Fair Housing Act, part of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, bars discrimination for sales, rentals and financing of homes on the basis of race, gender and other factors. It was amended in 1988 to include a prohibition on discrimination against those with disabilities.

The act has seven design and construction requirements, said Reyna Ramolete, staff attorney for Legal Aid Society of Hawaii, including policies for accessible routes and usable kitchens and bathrooms. The requirements, she added, apply to “covered multifamily dwellings” designed and constructed for their first occupancy after March 13 1991.

Furthermore, any project receiving federal funds is required to not only meet the requirements of the act, but “affirmatively further” its aims to overcome barriers and promote fair housing in communities.

A reference guide Ramolete referred to for design and construction requirements for the Fair Housing Act indicates that accessible routes must have a minimum 36-inch width, with other requirements to account for slopes. Accessible routes are required to connect covered dwelling entrances with site facilities and amenities.

The design problem

Gyotoku said the sidewalks that connected the apartment units to adjacent storage units weren’t originally designed in accordance with those guidelines.

The requirement, he said, is for each storage room to have a sidewalk accessible from the unit it belongs to. That required the county to pour concrete for 17 sidewalks to comply with the rules.

The county is also responsible for remodeling showers within the property’s 43 downstairs units.

The Fair Housing guidelines require that, when it’s the only bathing fixture in the dwelling a shower must have minimum dimensions of 36 inches by 36 inches with additional guidelines for a clear floor space parallel to the stall.

The showers were designed properly, Gyotoku said, but at some point someone, whom he wasn’t able to identify, approved a change of plans and allowed installers to substitute in modules narrower than what was planned, resulting in the installation of 36-inch pans at the bottom of the shower.

“But when you put the walls on the pan, the opening becomes narrower than 36 inches,” he said.

As a result, those showers now need to be remodeled, using a pan larger than 36 inches that will comply with the guidelines.

Gyotoku said the county found out about the problems about four years ago, noting that it took a Fair Housing contractor to come down from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to find the errors at the property. A representative for HUD did not respond to a request for comment.

In the time since they discovered the problems, he said, the county had been in talks to determine who exactly would be responsible for bearing the costs.

Ultimately, the county agreed that the buck stopped with them, and once he took the reins at the department, he made it his goal to get the job done.

“You can point fingers, but the bottom line is the county had to correct this,” he said.

Gyotoku said that even if there aren’t any current residents who require wheelchair accessible units, the remodeling effort is still crucial.

“The idea is if a wheelchair applicant comes in, it needs to be adaptable,” he said.

Bidding out the remodeling project

If they don’t get the job done, he said, the county risks having to return federal funds that went into the project.

Earlier this week, Gyotoku said the county was in the process of wrapping up the redesign of the shower stalls with an eye toward starting the bid process in the next few weeks.

Because the shower project hasn’t yet gone out to bid, Gyotoku declined to say how much remodeling will cost or how much in federal funds are at risk, only saying it’s a “substantial amount of money.”

He told West Hawaii Today he didn’t want to disclose the amount because potential bidders could use that leverage to increase their bids, knowing it’s a must-fix for the county.

Residents prepare to move

The cost of repairs is enough, Gyotoku said, to outweigh the cost of the remodeling.

In order to remodel the showers, residents of the relevant units will have to vacate their apartments while construction is underway.

Gyotoku said they’ll be taking them six at a time, starting with six already vacant units.

Once the showers in those units are remodeled, they’ll move six families into the vacant units temporarily so the showers in those occupied units can be remodeled.

Once their units are remodeled, residents will be able to move back into their homes and crews will move on to the next set of units.

“They’re just going to be temporarily relocated,” he said.

Residents of the development who spoke with West Hawaii Today on Thursday said they didn’t mind the construction, even if it meant leaving their homes for a few days.

Alsina Jackson, 46, has lived in her apartment for about two years and said she was told of the need to rebuild part of her apartment.

But, she said, it was only for “maybe one week,” and she didn’t have an issue with the construction.

Nor did Shanna Welle, 18, who also lives at Ulu Wini.

Welle said she learned of the plans a couple weeks ago at a community meeting and that she believes management has been very forthcoming with information about the plans.

“I’m good with it,” she said. “As long as they do what they have to do for the apartments.”

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