Backlog of repairs plagues UH Manoa student housing as officials try for revitalization

Feb. 4—Related Photo Gallery: Backlog of repairs plagues UH Manoa student housing

For the first week last fall that Dalton Barcus lived in his student housing apartment in Hale Wainani on the University of Hawaii at Manoa campus, he had no hot water, only cold water flowing from the taps.

Then for the next 2-1/2 months, he says, there was no cold water, only hot water.

"I never got burned in the shower, thank goodness, but the sink was really hot and I definitely burned my hands" — not so badly that he needed medical attention, he says, but enough to sting.

Serious plumbing problems are a major reason the 656-bed Hale Wainani apartments are considered by UH officials to be at risk of becoming the next aging UH student housing complex to be closed, following the neighboring 530-bed Hale Noelani apartment complex, which has been shuttered and silent for nearly seven years.

Neither complex has been renovated since being built in 1979 and 1978, respectively. Five of UH Manoa's nine student housing complexes have never been renovated since being built in the 1960s and 1970s.

Poor conditions in several of UH Manoa's 21 student housing buildings have become a political flashpoint: State Sens. Donna Mercado Kim and Donovan Dela Cruz and other lawmakers have accused UH administrators of mismanaging the UH Manoa student housing operation, which earns $23 million a year, and houses and serves about 3,100 students.

UH President David Lassner, when asked by state senators in a Jan. 10 legislative briefing how Hale Noelani has been allowed to remain closed so long, admitted that he learned belatedly about the closure — "Nobody brought it to my attention, and I didn't ask the question," he said.

In that briefing as well as in remarks to the UH Board of Regents at a Nov. 2 meeting, Lassner, who has led the 10-campus university since 2013 and became UH Manoa chancellor in 2016, apologized for not focusing on and improving housing for students more promptly.

"First I want to be clear that I accept responsibility for not making Manoa student housing the priority it needed to be sooner. UHM student housing has been a huge problem for decades," he told the regents. "You rightly hold the UH president accountable for everything that happens anywhere involving anyone on any UH campus."

Asked when Lassner became aware that Hale Noelani had closed in phases starting in 2017, a UH spokesperson said Lassner did not have an exact date, "but it is accurate to say he has been engaged substantively and directly with (UH) student housing beginning in fall 2020."

But Lassner and his administration are emphasizing that they are focused now on immediate and long-term improvements and planning to the on-campus dormitories and apartments.

For Hale Noelani, UH says it would take $80 million to renovate it and bring its 530 beds back online, or $327 million to replace it with a new structure that would provide 1,400 beds. The regents in their latest budget request asked for $80 million for an overhaul of Hale Noelani, but Gov. Josh Green did not include it in his budget for the 2024 state Legislature.

However, for Barcus and many other current students, improvements to UH student housing can't come fast enough.

As the communications major stood last week outside the I tower of Hale Wainani and ticked off his list of other problems with living there — roaches, faulty windows, drain clogs, security door locks that too often fail — just behind him, as if on cue, a steady stream of students struggled to get into the building, trying again and again to use the card reader outside the front door and sighing impatiently.

Once inside, their next problem was a wait as long as five minutes sometimes for a turn on an elevator to their apartments. A hand-scrawled "out of order" sign was taped on the doors of one of the two elevators. Asked what percentage of the time that elevator typically has been inaccessible, Barcus says, "about 50%."

"It's not the Four Seasons," fellow Hale Wainani resident Maile Simms said in a separate interview as she also wrestled with the front door, "but you can't beat the price."

Backlog of repairs

Therein, UH officials argue, lies the rub: UH has placed a high priority for decades on keeping campus housing rates affordable for students, they say, but the cash flow has not grown in proportion with skyrocketing upkeep costs, leaving many accommodations in poor shape. They say it also has prevented administrators from setting aside any significant sum for the additional major renovations needed now.

"All of these properties are very, very old," says Kalbert Young, UH vice president for budget and finance, and chief financial officer, said during a Honolulu Star-Advertiser exclusive interview and housing tour last week with a group of UH officials who oversee UH student housing.

"On-campus housing is a bargain and has been that way for literally decades," Young continued. "The amount that housing charges is barely sufficient to run housing operations and ... all the services that they get with UH housing. ... But it also doesn't provide funding for major reinvestment, which is the situation at Hale Noelani."

A crippling backlog of repairs was the reason Hale Noelani was closed, and outdated plumbing was among the worst problems, Young and other UH officials say.

Today at Hale Noelani, an eerie silence has settled over the empty, dark apartments, where rust-colored paint is peeling off the railings, and dead leaves have settled in scattered piles half a foot high in front of ground-floor apartments. UH officials declined a request last week to see inside the closed apartments; a spokesperson said they have not been maintained in years and would not be a fair representation.

Hitting roadblocks

In Hale Wainani, a two-bedroom apartment for four students this year runs $6,843 per person, equivalent to $760 per month for the roughly nine-month school year. The $27,372 that four roommates together would pay for the academic year is inclusive of utilities such as electricity, water and internet. It also includes repairs and maintenance, security, various amenities, and support services and educational programs that UH offers to residential students — and classes are in quick walking distance.

In the open market, average monthly rent alone for a two-bedroom apartment on Oahu is expected to run near $2,800 this year, which would equal about $25,200 for a nine-month period, based on Honolulu Board of Realtors data, but that includes no university support services, and doesn't always include utilities or extras.

UH student housing operates under a special fund that is required by state statute to be self-sustaining, and to generate enough revenue to cover operational expenses and capital investments. The 21 residential buildings on the UH Manoa campus offer 1,300 freshman beds and 1,800 nonfreshman beds, with a total 154 floors covering 1 million gross square feet, and draw an annual revenue of $23.2 million.

Costs for personnel, utilities and debt service consume almost 80% of the sum. And a severe staffing shortage in November, for instance, had 14 custodians each handling an average of 74,898 gross square feet of the facilities, when the industry standard for "ordinary tidiness" calls for each to maintain 16,700 gross square feet, UH officials said.

The four student housing complexes that have been renovated or replaced (see accompanying list) were supported with revenue bonds paid for by housing fees, a UH spokesperson said.

UH officials acknowledge that the way student housing has been administered over the years also has hindered progress and made accountability lines unclear. UH student housing directors over the past decade have included Mike Kaptik, Laurie Furutani and Dean Shimomura.

But Lassner and other UH officials say the larger problem was that student housing programs and facilities until recently operated as if in a silo, and had from its inception been placed under the office of the UH Manoa vice provost for student success.

Lassner said in remarks to the UH regents that there had been "multiple discussions among Manoa leadership about the challenges with student housing," and when the regents approved an administrative reorganization in 2019, "we noted publicly that this was a thorny organizational problem we had not yet solved. My observation was that while residential life ... is a classic 'student affairs' function, the operational management and financial planning for complex 24/7 facilities and operations with thousands of beds is not a core strength of student affairs professionals."

In the works

University officials contend that important new strides are being made now. UH in February 2023 announced the "beginning stages of implementing a comprehensive plan to upgrade facilities, streamline operations, provide additional resources for current and prospective student residents, and improve the overall student resident experience."

A 26-point assessment of all student housing facilities is underway to create a priority order for work, with a checklist ranging from roofs, windows and doors, to plumbing, fixtures and electricity.

KMH LLC has been contracted to help develop a financial program that includes an analysis of rates. Meanwhile, public-­private partnership agreements of the kind that built the new 219-room Walter Dods Jr. RISE Center and the 316-unit Residences for Graduate Students that broke ground in October, are getting stronger consideration, Young said.

UH officials also point to a flurry of recent initiatives, including new mattresses in every student room; installation of more than 300 wireless access points to improve Wi-Fi service; repairs to 550 windows, 400 bed frames and 50 air-conditioning units; and focus groups with students to reimagine the common areas at the Hale Aloha Towers.

A new interim director of student housing services, David Akana, was appointed last April. In August, student housing operation was moved up higher in the administration, with student life and facilities aspects shifted under the UH system office of Vice President for Administration Jan Gouveia.

"If I have just one message ... it would be the recognition that the current state of just everything — the facilities, and programming and what have you — it took years to get to this point. It didn't happen overnight," Gouveia said. But moving forward, "it's my overall responsibility to make sure either the right people are in place, or the right questions are being asked, and the right planning has been done. ... I think the message is that we are taking this seriously."

By the numbers

University of Hawaii at Manoa student housing

>> 21 residential buildings

>> 154 floors

>> 1 million gross square feet

>> 1,300 freshman beds

>> 1,800 nonfreshman beds

>> $23.2 million annual revenue

Note: Does not include the Walter Dods Jr. RISE Center, which is privately owned and operated.

Source: University of Hawaii

Home, sweet dorms

UH Manoa student housing renovation status

Never renovated

Hale Kahawai

>> Built in 1963

>> 85 rooms, 163 beds

>> $6,278 for double-occupancy room with community bath*

Hale Anuenue

>> Built in 1964

>> 43 rooms, 85 beds

>> $9,061 for single occupancy, community bath*

Hale Laulima

>> Built in 1968

>> 85 rooms, 161 beds

>> $6,278 for double-occupancy room with community bath*

Hale Noelani

>> Built in 1978

>> 152 rooms, 500 beds

>> Currently closed

Hale Wainani

>> Built in 1979

>> 188 rooms, 656 beds

>> $6,843 for two-bedroom apartment, four occupants, shared private bath*

Renovated/rebuilt

Johnson Hall

>> Built in 1958; renovated in 2011

>> 98 rooms, 197 beds

>> $6,278 for double-occupancy room with community bath*

Gateway House

>> Built in 1962; renovated in 2012

>> 114 rooms, 230 beds

>> $6,278 for two-bedroom apartment, four occupants, shared private bath*

Hale Aloha Towers

>> Four towers constructed 1971-1973; renovated in 2009

>> 564 rooms; 1,084 beds

>> $6,278 for double-occupancy room with community bath*

Frear Hall

>> Built in 2008 (replaced original structure)

>> 244 rooms, 810 beds

>> $7,663 for two-bedroom apartment, four occupants, shared private bath*

*Cost per student per school year

Source: University of Hawaii