Big Island – September 06, 2012 – Carol Ignacio calls it her “green project” — salvaging 20 housing units that were slated for the landfill, moving them across island and turning them into homes for low-income senior citizens.

The units once comprised the Kawaihae Transitional Housing project in West Hawaii. But when the County of Hawaii opened the first phase of Na Kaulana Kauhale O Ulu Wini, a 96-unit low-income housing project in Kaloko last year, there was no more need for the 24 units in Kawaihae which were well-worn with use since developed in 1992. When the units were slated for demolition, Ignacio, executive director of the Office of Social Ministry, Diocese of Honolulu, winced at the thought of the waste and recalled how parishioners in Pahoa were eager to develop low-income senior housing in their community, where there is a critical need and a shortage of funds.

So Ignacio’s idea began to hatch. First she got a small grant to find out whether the wooden buildings were structurally sound and safe enough to make transporting them to East Hawaii worthwhile. They were. Then she asked the buildings’ owner, Nansay Corporation, to donate the units to Hope Services Inc., formerly the Care-A-Van program for the Diocese of Honolulu, which provides services to the homeless islandwide. It did. Ignacio then got the county to transport each of the 465-square-foot units 85 miles cross-island to Pahoa, where they now sit behind the Sacred Heart Catholic Church awaiting renovation.

But while getting all the units to Pahoa was one thing, renovating them for seniors who need them is quite another. Each unit will have its own kitchen and bath and will be located on a church-owned parcel near where the units are now in rustic Pahoa town. “It’s independent living, not assisted living,” Ignacio said, and each unit will conform to the Americans with Disabilities Act. The Sacred Heart Parish has many volunteers, including professional builders, standing ready to pitch in to make the units livable for the kupuna, and will provide for some of the seniors’ needs such as transportation and maintenance on a continuing basis. But the overall renovation requires a level of work and funds not readily available for the project.

Now the church and county housing officials are working with Maui developer Doug DePonte on a plan to donate two finished parcels in Waiakea Uka to the church to meet the developer’s affordable housing requirements. It would be the first application of part of the new ordinance adopted by the Hawaii County Council last year to prevent developers from paying cash for credits instead of actually providing affordable housing.

In this case, the developer would donate two lots to Hope Services, which would sell the parcels and use the proceeds to renovate the units for the seniors in Pahoa. The two lots could generate up to $100,000 apiece, said Alan Rudo, housing specialist for the county. DePonte declined to discuss the plan until it gains final county approval. “We got the property and and we’re going through permitting now,” Ignacio said. She expects the county permits to be ready by mid-October, and said that additional grant funding will be sought to build a simple community center for the seniors.

Meanwhile, parish volunteers are putting “a lot of sweat equity in this project,” said Don Adkins, chairman of Sacred Heart’s steering committee for the project. “We have a whole army of volunteers, about 80 people, signed up to help.” Eight students from an architecture class at the University of Hawaii at Manoa also spent six weeks working on plans as a community service project, using their own funds to fly to the Big Island and visit the site in Pahoa where the units will be set up. Ultimately they presented various design possibilities for the project that were presented to the parishioners for them to choose from, and they are helping to move the plans through the county.

“The university students have been very helpful,” he said. “That was a big nut for us to get over in terms of costs.” Adkins couldn’t estimate an occupancy date for the seniors yet. “We’re still in the process of grant writing, soliciting donations and materials … on a shoestring budget.” The project was part of the Parish’s plan 10 years ago but had stalled due to lack of funding, Adkins said. “When the diocese came up with these units, that’s what we needed.” And if the new county ordinance works as planned, that “shoestring” budget could soon become a “green” lifeline for needy seniors in Pahoa.

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Watch video of the move!

Hunter Bishop. “Housing project for seniors blooms in Pahoa” Tribune Herald, 06 Sept. 2012.