Ohai Street house fire sheds re­newed light on is­land’s prob­lem with squat­ters

Hawaii Tribune Herald - - FRONT PAGE - By IVY ASHE

A de­struc­tive house fire last week un­der­scores the prob­lem of squat­ters on Hawaii Is­land.

The fire broke out the morn­ing of Jan. 7 at 375 Ohai St. in Hilo. The Hawaii Fire Depart­ment con­tin­ues to in­ves­ti­gate.

The house had no elec­tric­ity or run­ning wa­ter, neigh­bors said, and it was oc­cu­pied by squat­ters — some­times as many as 20 peo­ple at a time — for at least two years. Fire Depart­ment of­fi­cials said Jan. 7 that the home had long been va­cant and was known as a “nui­sance” house and a drug den.

Neigh­bor Don Medeiros has lived next door for 77 years.

“Born and raised,” Medeiros said. “But this place was never like this, never.”

The house was built in 1938 and at one point be­longed to Medeiros’ math teacher. It was last sold in 2006, ac­cord­ing to county

prop­erty tax records.

Allen Filo­teo, man­ager of neigh­bor­ing River­side Apart­ments, said his con­cern was not with the fact that home­less peo­ple lived in the house.

“It’s at night, the traf­fic and the drugs and the waste they were stor­ing in­side,” he said.

Filo­teo said he called the Depart­ment of Health the Thurs­day be­fore the fire be­cause peo­ple were throw­ing waste, in­clud­ing hu­man waste, out­side near the apart­ments.

Ten­ants on the mauka side of River­side com­plained to Filo­teo in the past, say­ing they could see peo­ple in­side us­ing drugs.

An­other home in the Hilo neigh­bor­hood, on Wainaku Street, was aban­doned for years be­fore it was bought and fixed up.

Res­i­dent Vickie Mure­san lives near that home and said she of­ten wor­ried about fire safety when squat­ters were there.

“In the end, we’re try­ing to get the prob­lem solved.” CAPT. RICHARD SHER­LOCK, Hawaii Po­lice Depart­ment, South Hilo Pa­trol

“Some­times I could see the glow of a can­dle, and that is al­ways scary be­cause if one goes, it threat­ens (ev­ery­thing),” she said. “There’s a lot of old beau­ti­ful homes here; it’s just sad.”

Medeiros said he first raised con­cerns about the squat­ters and drug use on Ohai Street dur­ing a May 2014 com­mu­nity meet­ing with East Hawaii po­lice of­fi­cers. He pro­duced his hand­writ­ten notes from that meet­ing, as well as notes from speak­ing with aides for Hawaii County Coun­cil­woman Va­lerie Poin­dex­ter in July of that year.

“Noth­ing hap­pens, just back and forth,” Medeiros said.

Hawaii Po­lice Depart­ment Capt. Richard Sher­lock of South Hilo Pa­trol said the depart­ment re­ceived a call Wed­nes­day re­port­ing that the peo­ple who were liv­ing in the house be­fore the fire were now liv­ing in a car on the prop­erty, hav­ing moved the orange fenc­ing put up by the Fire Depart­ment.

But as with all of the com­plaints re­gard­ing squat­ting, the same prob­lem arises: In or­der for any­one to be evicted from a prop­erty, the own­ers must be part of the process.

“We ei­ther have them or a rep­re­sen­ta­tive of their prop­erty be present, and we’ll go to the house,” Sher­lock said. “By (Hawaii) Re­vised Statutes, the owner or the rep­re­sen­ta­tive has to serve the pa­pers, and then per tres­pass­ing law, (the squat­ters) have to leave.

“With the fore­clo­sures and the re­ces­sion, we’ve had a lot of the own­ers who live on the main­land,” he said. In those cases, own­ers of­ten hire a real es­tate agency to rep­re­sent them.

In the case of 375 Ohai St., how­ever, the Po­lice Depart­ment has not been able to reach the home­own­ers. County prop­erty tax records show that Wil­liam Charles Wal­lace and Ma­ri­etta Nal­los Wal­lace have an Arkansas mail­ing ad­dress.

“We’ve made at­tempts to con­tact them,” Sher­lock said. “Our big­gest prob­lem is get­ting ahold of the own­ers.”

An­other home owned by the Wal­laces, lo­cated on Kau­mana Drive in Hilo, had a fore­clo­sure sale last Au­gust. Of­fi­cers are not sure if the Ohai Street house is un­der fore­clo­sure or if a third party has taken it over, Sher­lock said.

“Some­times the fi­nan­cial in­sti­tu­tions that take over the house … are on the main­land, too,” he said.

Squat­ting in bankowned houses also has been a prob­lem in Puna since the re­ces­sion led to large num­bers of fore­closed homes in the dis­trict.

In 2015, for­mer Hawaii County Coun­cil­man Greg­gor Ila­gan formed a task force to in­ves­ti­gate the Puna squat­ting prob­lem, but no leg­is­la­tion was drafted.

Hilo has seen an uptick in re­ports of squat­ting dur­ing the past two years, Sher­lock said, “so we had to learn from our brother of­fi­cers in Puna from these is­sues.”

In many cases, peo­ple are just look­ing for a place to stay, he said. But the longer peo­ple stay in a home, “you have other prob­lems that fol­low.”

“In the end, we’re try­ing to get the prob­lem solved,” Sher­lock said. “We hate to say that we can’t do any­thing.”

HOLLYN JOHN­SON/Tri­bune-Her­ald

Allen Filo­teo, left, man­ager of River­side Apart­ments, and neigh­bor­hood res­i­dent Don Medeiros stand Wed­nes­day in front of what re­mains of the house at 375 Ohai St. The Ohai Street res­i­dents are con­cerned about squat­ters and drug use at the home even af­ter it was de­stroyed by fire Jan. 7.

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