‘A sign of hope’: New tactic shows promise in shutting down game rooms permanently

They say they're on track to bring that number down to 80 next year.
Published: Sep. 20, 2023 at 5:54 PM HST|Updated: Sep. 20, 2023 at 6:13 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - One of the most recent game rooms busts on Oahu was right across the street from an elementary school in Kalihi Valley.

The situation has gotten so bad city leaders are trying a new tactic: Going after landlords.

“These rooms have been operating for almost 10 years each,” said Corp. Alexander Watson of HPD. “We’ve raided them many times and they keep reopening so, it’s very frustrating for us.”

Watson said the game room in Kalihi was originally below the liquor store at the corner of Kalihi and Laumaile streets.

During COVID, it moved to the second floor of the building that was built with no permits.

It then moved into the basement of a home behind a two-story structure. Both properties belonged to the same owner.

On July 27, the game room was raided — and then shut down permanently thanks to city code and permitting actions.

“Getting called back for follow-up inspections and seeing the game rooms being like physically torn down, it’s incredible and it’s a sign of hope,” said Watson.

Kalihi Uka Elementary has noticed a difference. Principal Derek Santos said a tree on campus that was across from the game room used to be a hub for drug deals.

“People would literally stand on the side of the tree at all hours of the school day and drug deals would happen,” said Santos. “So there’s less and less now.”

Councilmembers Andria Tupola and Tyler Dos Santos-Tam want to further strengthen the city’s ability to go after landlords.

Their new bills would allow the city Department of Planning and Permitting to fine landlords up to $150,000 and give police the ability to serve penalties for building and fire codes and land use violations. HPD and DPP would work together to enforce the law.

“If they’re able to go in and immediately say, illegal walls, illegal wiring, no building permit, that goes to the landlord, and that, I think, is to the point of discouraging the landlords from continuing this sort of operation,” said Dos Santos-Tam.

Tupola said there are 16 active game rooms in her Leeward Oahu district.

She’s hoping new laws will help the city say game over.

“Because they have to build such an extensive case to nail down an operator or a cashier, the other way is to ask people to please operate businesses legally,” said Tupola.

The measures are expected to get their first City Council reading on Oct. 4.