MHN Interview: An Affordable Makeover in Hawaii
Honolulu—Stacie Brach was recently named Regional Property Manager of the Year by The National Association of Home Builders, a recognition she never expected.
“I tend to be pretty humble, and just want to make a difference to the families. But it was a great honor,” said Brach, a district property manager with Interstate Realty Management (IRM), a division of The Michaels Organization.
In the property management industry since the early 1990s, Brach has made her way from conventional multifamily, where she began her career as a leasing agent in Colorado, to the military housing sector, where she led the privatization of dozens of military housing communities.
Her work in military housing introduced her to the protocols associated with government housing regulations, so it was a natural fit when she was approached by a former colleague, who is now a VP with Michaels, to head up a significant affordable housing repositioning in Honolulu, Hawaii.
The Towers of Kuhio Park, as they are now known, needed a complete rehabilitation of 555 units—a $135 million project to bring a community that was described as “failing” back from the brink. Lacking the funding to do such a large overhaul on their own, the Hawaii Public Housing Authority turned to the private sector for help.
Restoring Kuhio Park, which was troubled by crime and had many units in such bad shape that they weren’t habitable by residents, was no small task. Without fear of the challenges involved, Brach jumped right in. In less than two years, the fully occupied 16-story project was redone from head to toe, the results a place residents are now proud to call home.
MHN talked to Brach, who is now managing the Western States affordable portfolio for Michaels, about the logistics such a significant effort entailed and how her “residents first” approach helped.
MHN: How did The Michaels Organization end up in Honolulu?
Brach: This was the first project that the Michaels Organization had on the islands of Hawaii, and it was the largest public housing project that the Hawaii Public Housing Authority owned. It’s scheduled to go in phases, and the first phase was to rehabilitate two towers that now consist of 555 occupied units. During renovation, the total number of units was decreased by 17 to provide for social service spaces—offices, meeting rooms and medical care. We will be adding additional units on the second phase of the project. We were very lucky to receive a Choice Neighborhood Planning Initiative grant in partnership with HPHA, and so now the residents of these additional phases are very much a part of the planning of their new homes.
MHN: What was it like working in Hawaii?
Brach: Working in Hawaii is a different culture. Learning about all of the different ethnic backgrounds we have in Hawaii, not just the Hawaiians, but a lot of our residents and staff are from the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of the Marshall Island, the Republic of Palau, both Samoa and American Samoa, and many other Pacific Island and Southeast Asia nations. Hawaii is often their first stop to the United States, and some of them have never seen concrete. As you can imagine, we had to find some diverse ways to communicate, educate and provide services targeted to each of the different cultural backgrounds that would help them thrive in their new home and be successful in their career.
MHN: What is the demand like for affordable housing in Hawaii?
Brach: Affordable housing in Hawaii—there’s just not enough. The Hawaii Public Housing Authority holds the waiting list for both the Section 8 and Public Housing, and there are over 10,000 people on their waiting list, so the demand is very, very high. The average median income in Hawaii is over $83,000 a year, and most of our families are making well below half that figure.
MHN: What were the challenges involved?
Brach: The property had a reputation throughout the whole state as not being a good place to live or visit and this weighed heavy on my heart. It was challenging in the beginning, because in really getting to know the people who live in our community you find amazing stories and realize there are so many wonderful individuals and families that live there and I wanted better for them. I heard stories from some of our residents that their children would be harassed or looked down upon in school, not allowed to play with other kids, when they were recognized as living in Kuhio Park. It really breaks your heart, when children’s parents don’t have the means to live elsewhere, but they are stigmatized within their own school and community and are not welcome to play or socialize with the other kids.
We hear from so many residents and from service providers—many of whom have served the community for over 40 years—that we did a good job, of not only transforming the units, but working long and hard to change the perception of the Towers of Kuhio Park and how the community and its residents are now perceived.
MHN: How did you handle the stress of such a challenging project?
Brach: I never looked at it as being difficult. I just loved the challenge. I love to dedicate my time and my life to seeing others succeed. To be there to make a positive impact on other people’s lives meant a great deal to me.
Communicating with the residents started with listening and being open and available. We held regular community meetings where we would present information of the upcoming changes so they weren’t surprised and they could be part of the process the whole way. The entire management team to include leasing, maintenance and our social service director attended these meetings, so they could hear the residents’ concerns and be part of helping provide the right answers. If needed, staff would sit down one-on-one with the residents and come up with solutions. That was the first step, to know that we didn’t have a blind eye and that we were going to be there for them. While at first residents were suspicious, we kept to our words, and positives changes were made, the residents began to rely, accept and trust that we were there to do the right thing.
We also had translators for the different cultures, as mentioned above. Translation was a very important part of the communication process.
MHN: How did you deal with needing to move residents out of their units?
Brach: Because of the rehabilitation, 20 families were displaced in the beginning. These families were relocated to other Public Housing communities throughout the island and were chosen based on a need for a larger unit and a few volunteered as they desired to relocate in order to be closer to family. To accommodate the others in gentle way, we created an in-house hotel with the three top floors of one of the towers used for transitional housing. When it was time for their unit to be renovated, we would move them to the other part of the building with their own household goods. It took our development partner approximately30 days to renovate each floor, and then we’d move them back. We provided all the boxes, wrapping paper and movers; and further offered a $100 incentive if the residents were ready to move out on schedule and another $100 if they were ready to move back in—this was essential to get the renovation done on time. Through this process, our occupancy stayed at 100 percent of available units. My total move outs for the first two years were probably less than one percent.
MHN: What are the 17 spaces converted to social services units being used for?
Brach: Let me first say that we have incredible partners in our local non-profit service providers. Kokua Kalihi Valley Health Center (KKV), Hawaii Literacy, and Parents and Children Together (PACT) have served this community for 40 years each, and Susannah Wesley Community Center was founded 100 years ago. These agencies along with many others ensure that our residents’ needs are met. We have medical offices run by KKV, a Federally Qualified health center where residents are able to come down for free health checks, vaccination shots and more. There are two computer tech labs run by PACT who provide educational courses that help residents improve their computer skills with classes and monitored open hours.
Hawaii Literacy runs a Family Library with over 5,000 books, along with afterschool classes to help the children read, and to get them involved in books. There are activities for parents and children there as well, and every family received a book.
We have a sewing center run by KKV called Seams Wonderful. Here participants learn how to use industrial grade sewing machines and produce items for sale at KKV’s Main Health Center and swap meets. In addition to this job training program that can provide a pathway out of poverty, PACT just received funding from the state of Hawaii to open a “Makery” in our Tower B. The Makery will teach residents how to use computers to create CADD designs which can then be produced in 3-D fax machines or cut out of wood via laser cutter and then assembled. This training program has an extra benefit in its potential to reduce the amount of souvenir goods imported from three world countries; thereby lowering Hawaii’s carbon footprint and producing real “Made in Hawaii” goods and an emerging groups of entrepreneurs. PACT also offers a Business Start-up class that teaches residents how to do a business plan and even funds their licensing fees.
We’re finishing up a cultural center that will hold a music and dance program for youth called El Sistema, and we also link with PACT to offer a teen center for older teens. We have a couple hospitality suites that are used by other non-profits and agencies that aren’t there on a regular basis, that host meetings of the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, smoking cessation courses, drug or alcohol abuse classes and so on.
Perhaps one of the most exciting programs is the Senior Health Maintenance Program that KKV has offered in our Community Hall for over 10 years. The seniors meet Monday through Friday from 9:00 a.m. to noon and exercise, get health screenings and education, and have a meal together. This program honors new research that social interaction is as important to health and longevity as regular screening of blood pressure. The senior citizens were very much a part of the redesign and renovation of the Center and love the results.
MHN: What was the impact on rents and property’s affordable status?
Brach: Rent levels stayed the same at 30 percent of income for all our existing residents. Of the total 555 units, 347 units remained on public housing subsidy, and 150 were converted to a project based voucher unit. The remaining 58 units that we used for the in-house hotel, which had mostly been vacant prior to the closing of the deal, became tax credit units and are available to people making less than 60 percent of median income at a reduced rate.
MHN: Will the Michaels Organization be working in Hawaii again?
Brach: We are definitely looking for additional opportunities in Hawaii, and have just received notice of an award on a 300 brand new unit subdivision in East Kapolei, which is called Oahu’s “Second City.” We are working with HHFDC right now on finalizing the award and are excited to be able to provide much needed additional affordable housing to families living in Hawaii in the next few years.