In Kakaako, low-income kupuna fight back against feared rent hike

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KAKAAKO, OAHU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Dozens of low-income seniors who live in Kakaako fear they are facing a huge rent hike.

The residents of Na Lei Hulu Kupuna received letters in the mail last week mentioning a giant increase. However, the landlord said it is all a misunderstanding and promises to not raise the rent at least until the end of the year.

But some tenants are suspicious and are planning a protest.

"We're gonna picket. We're gonna let people know, we're not gonna stand here and cower anymore. We're gonna let the public know what's going on. That the vulnerability of the seniors is being taken advantage of by someone who is much smarter and much wiser," said Deborah Sebela.

The building, on the corner of Cooke and Halekauwila Streets, is home to about 75 kupuna.

They must qualify as "low income" and be at least 62 years old to live there.

The letter that scared many of them seemed to say they faced big rent increases because the state was no longer funding the Rental Assistance Program (RAP).

One tenant who now pays $464 per month said her new lease agreement said she must pay $916 a month, which is almost double.

Sebela said it will put some out on the streets.

"For most tenants, that type of increase would mean money for food. There's no money for extra medical bills, for their copays, they just can't do it," Sebela said.

Mark Development, Inc. purchased the property from the Hawaii Community Development Authority and Bank of Hawaii on December 29, 2017.

"HCDA and Bank of Hawaii sold the project to us and our development entity so we could help preserve and protect the property as affordable housing for the next 60 years," said President for the company, Craig Watase.

Watase said his residents are just confused.

A letter to tenants dated February 1, 2018 says, "the new owners will help cover what RAP provided until you are able to find other rental assistance or until December 31, 2018."

"Had they read the full lease and the addendums, it explained that. Had they waited for the meetings, they would have gotten a verbal explanation. Nobody is gonna be paying more for rent, not at least for the next year," Watase said.

An official with the Hawaii Housing Finance & Development Corporation, which owns part of the land, said the new owner declined to extend the Rental Assistance Program contract.

Watase said he is committed to his residents.

"At the end of the day, we'll see that this is one of the good things happening in Kakaako for the local people. We're not luxury housing builders, we've never had and never will be," he said.

Watase said he is hoping to find either rent supplements or Section 8 vouchers from now until the end of year.

The residents are still planning to protest at the building at 11:30 a.m on Tuesday.

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