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