A handful of apartments at Kalihi Valley Homes are in need of extensive work so they can be rented. But it will take longer than it did a couple of months ago now that the Hawaii Public Housing Authority had to partially dismantle its special team of laborers.
"We were only able to convert 26 out of 36. So we essentially lost 30 percent of the force which is going to slow us down," executive director Hakim Ouansafi said.
Many of the workers on the team were under a Civil Service exemption and could work on any public housing project. They had different specialties and worked simultaneously instead of one at a time, shortening the time it took to remodel and revamp a unit.
"When they go to the unit that is vacant they don't leave until the unit is done and it's ready to be occupied," Ouansafi said.
He said the team slashed turnaround time on a unit from an average of eight months to seven days. But last month the exemption ended and the legislature refused the Authority's request for an extension.
The United Public Workers Union lobbied against continuing the three-year exemption, saying the Authority had ample time to establish civil service positions to repair and maintain vacant state housing units.
"The disappointment stems from knowing that we could prevent these additional units not getting fixed," Ouansafi said. "The special team we put together was certainly one of the documented successes for this agency."
The Authority has reached a pilot project agreement with UPW to re-stock the team with Civil Service employees. But Ouansafi said it will take a couple of months to get them up to speed, so the backlog of units needing work could double from its present number of 175 vacancies.
"I'm hopeful that the civil servants that are going be a part of the team will be able to meet that goal of seven days turnaround," said Sen. Suzanne Chun Oakland.
As chairperson of the Senate Human Services and Housing Committee she supported an extension of the exemption. She's hopeful the memorandum of understanding with UPW will work.
"Anytime a unit is vacant we need to fill it," she said.
"Essentially and eventually we should have a working team that's doing the job," Ouansafi said.
Three years ago 13,000 applicants were on the waiting list for public housing. The special team's rapid work helped cut it to 6,000 applicants.