- Associated Press - Friday, January 29, 2016

HONOLULU (AP) - Hawaii lawmakers are considering limiting the number of years people can live in public housing if they agree to an incentive program in advance, hoping to create more movement in a system with a yearslong waiting list.

By accepting a seven-year limit, potential tenants on the waiting list would get priority to move into apartments. They’d have their monthly rent frozen at the lowest possible level, instead of tying their rent to income.

Democratic State Rep. Sylvia Luke, chairwoman of the House Finance Committee, wants to encourage people to move out of public housing to make room for people living on the streets.

“We really needed a lot of turnover in all areas, including the shelters and the public housing, for us to transition people who are homeless” into housing, Luke told The Associated Press. “There’s very little incentive for people who are living in public housing to leave.”

There were 13,645 on the statewide public housing waitlist on Wednesday, said Dawn Takeuchi Apuna, chief planner for the Hawaii Public Housing Authority. It can take up to five years to get to the top of the list, according to the housing authority’s website. The turnover rate in Hawaii’s public housing is about 4 percent annually, which provides virtually no way for people to get in, Luke said.

Typically, the rent amount in public housing is equal to a third of a tenant’s income, or a minimum amount such as $128 per month for a two-bedroom apartment - whichever amount is greater, Luke said. Some public housing tenants with jobs pay about $1,000 a month, while others may pay a tenth of that to live in an equivalent space.

The policy discourages some people from pursuing higher-income jobs, because their rent goes up with their earnings, Luke said.

“It’s almost a disincentive for folks to actually work and better themselves and earn higher wages,” Luke said. “It’s penalizing them.”

That’s what Luke wants to change. Under her proposal, HB2638, people who agree to the seven-year time limit would have their rent frozen at the minimum amount and could open a savings account and the state would match their saved money when they move out.

“To be incentivized to work and earn and get higher incomes is always a good thing, especially if folks are expected to eventually go out to the regular marketplace to find housing,” said Ed Cabrera, spokesman for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. “But knowing what I know about Hawaii, there aren’t that many places that can compete in terms of housing market unaffordability.”

Rios Nickepwi, a high school senior who grew up in public housing at Mayor Wright Homes in Honolulu, said it would be hard for people to improve their lives if they were displaced.

“We’re on a rock, so we can’t really move,” Nickepwi said, referring to the island state’s limited land.

Cabrera said he knows of no other state that has set time limits on public housing.

Hawaii has 865 state-owned public housing units, according to Luke. The time-limit program would be available to people moving into renovated units, not those who are already living in public housing, she said. Gov. David Ige in his budget proposed $31 million for public housing improvements and renovation statewide, including expedited repair of vacant units.

“A lot of people I know, they lived here 30 years,” said Jake Etuale, a school security guard who said he pays about $300 a month to live in a 5-bedroom public housing apartment at Mayor Wright Homes. “If you comply with the rules, you should stay.”

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