Fatal fire home was target of overcrowding complaint

KALIHI, OAHU (HawaiiNewsNow) - The city was unable to substantiate a complaint filed four years ago that more people were living than allowed by law in the Kalihi home where a man died in a fire Thursday night.  The city is investigating how many people lived in the home and whether part of it was constructed without proper building permits.

Reko Francis spoke to Hawaii News Now outside the Kalihi shelter where he and the other three families displaced by the fire were living temporarily.

Francis, who's a "back waiter" at PF Chang's restaurant in Waikiki, said he's not sure what he, his wife and three children will do next.

"I don't know, I just. I'm not sure yet, I'm just waiting," Francis told Hawaii News Now.

Francis said about 28 people lived in the three-level, wooden construction home at 1915 Kalihi Street. All of them are from Micronesia and he said some, but not all of them are related.

"I live upstairs.  My cousin lives he's in the front house, all the way down," Francis said.

He explained his family paid about $1,500 a month rent for three bedrooms at the house which was built in 1949. The other families paid additional rent, he said.

Building plans showed the owners spent $118,000 expanding the home from two to seven bedrooms in 2002.

The city investigated a complaint that more people were living here than allowed by law in 2009, according to Art Challacombe, deputy director of the city's Planning and Permitting Department.

"Housing code inspectors went out to the site, found, at the time, found a family of eight residing on the premises and therefore there was no violation in 2009," Challacombe said. He said the city received no further complaints about the home recently.

He said based on the 2,800 square footage of the structure, as many as 31 people could have lived in the home legally, but only if they were all related by blood, adoption or marriage.  The residents told Hawaii News Now they were not all related.

Otherwise, city law allows no more than five unrelated people to live together in the same house.

Hawaii News Now reporter Keoki Kerr asked, "There's potentially no penalty for being a slumlord, and having way too many people and having done all kinds of work that's not on the books?"

Challacombe answered, "If we know about it before hand, yes there is. If we know about it before hand, we will send an inspector, like we did in 2009."

Challacombe said it's most likely the city's Department of Planning and Permitting won't fine the landlord, Cleophus Sanders, for any code violations in this case, because his house will probably be demolished and any potential violations will have stopped because the house burned down.  He said the case could be forwarded to the office of the Corporation Counsel, the city's legal office, for action.

But Challacombe said his department will work together with Honolulu Fire Department investigators to determine whether portions of the building were illegally constructed.

City spokesman Jesse Broder Van Dyke said, "The City will look carefully at this situation to determine whether any laws were violated and, if so, what actions should be taken to address those violations. At this point, without having all of the facts, it is premature to make that determination."

Capt. Terry Seelig, a spokesman for the Honolulu Fire Department, said, "When you have overcrowding or additional construction that's really not to code or to the best design-build, even, then that complicates any type of planning and any effort to escape."

"This home is not unlike many others in many of our neighborhoods throughout older Honolulu where additions have been put in because of the pressures of life, with the affording of rent. With the extended family and the needs," Seelig said.

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