The number of Oahu homeowners cited for illegal occupancy — or having too many people who aren’t family under one roof — dropped from 20 last year to just four so far in 2019.
Even as the number of citations has slowed, the issue of large numbers of people living in a single dwelling was again highlighted this month when a fatal fire started at a Kalihi home with 17 residents July 5. The fire then spread to an attached but separate home where four people lived.
Investigators have been unable to determine a cause of the fire that led to the death of a 75-year-old woman who was rescued from her burning bedroom in critical condition.
Councilman Joey Manahan, whose district includes Kalihi, lives near the burned remnants of the homes and said when he knocks on doors canvassing his district, he regularly sees lots of people living in sometimes subdivided houses.
“We’ve had fires in some of them,” Manahan said. “In one home you can have 16, 20 people, and that’s not uncommon. You don’t just knock on the front door when there’s three, four, five doors on the side. They’re all in the same home, but they’re considered separate units.”
There is no limit on the number of family members who can live in a single dwelling, according to the Revised Ordinances of Honolulu.
The ROH define “family” as “one or more persons, all related by blood, adoption, or marriage, occupying a dwelling unit or lodging unit. A family may also be defined as no more than five unrelated persons.”
But only three unrelated “roomers” are allowed, as long as the dwelling “is also occupied by a family composed of persons related by blood, marriage or adoption, and is not used as a group living facility,” according to the ROH.
Property owners face penalties ranging from a $50 initial fine, and $50 per day, to $1,000 initial and $1,000 a day, according to the city Department of Planning and Permitting.
Manahan sympathizes with the people who have to share a single building.
“I see it as a way to just get by, to rent affordably, just to be able to live in Honolulu, especially in the urban core,” he said.
Honolulu firefighters typically respond to 100 serious home fires a year “where they’re not going to be livable,” said Honolulu Fire Department Capt. Scot Seguirant.
And in many cases the homes contain plenty of residents, Seguirant said.
“People are doing things based on what they can afford, like sharing a room,” Seguirant said. “We’re here to help. We’re not here to judge.”
HFD officials said 14 of the 17 residents living at 2357 Owene Lane near Middle Street were home when the fire broke out.
The two-story house shares a common wall with a similar two-story home at 2362-A Haumana Place, where Adela Bumanglag was rescued from her burning bedroom with second-degree burns to her face and torso.
She died July 11 at Straub Medical Center’s burn unit, according to her older sister, Loreto Sacramento.
Sacramento’s former tenant in her Haumana Place home, Jason Tolentino, told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser on Wednesday that the Owene Lane house actually housed 20 people, not the 17 identified by Honolulu fire officials.
But it was Sacramento who was cited in 2015 by the Department and Planning and Permitting for having too many unrelated occupants, or “roomers,” according to DPP. No such citation was issued to the owners of the Owene Lane house, according to DPP.
The ROH allows only for three “roomers” as long as a “family” member is living in the home.
Sacramento had seven roomers, according to DPP’s Notice of Violation that was sent to her in November 2015.
“The violation was corrected and no fines assessed,” DPP officials wrote in an email to the Star-Advertiser.
Councilwoman Kymberly Marcos Pine, the City Council’s former Zoning and Housing Committee chairwoman, said she understands why multiple people share homes around Oahu, because “I lived it,” she said.
“I had 11 people living in my grandma’s house in Manoa — all related,” Pine said. “We were multiple generations living in the same house just to survive. It was a typical Filipino household: Grandma, Grandpa in one room. When we first moved there my dad, mom, brother and I slept on the floor in the living room and had to pack up every morning. My two aunts and uncle were living in the bedroom we later occupied. Then it was Mom, Dad, brother and I in one room with a bunk bed. The next room had my aunt and her daughter. Downstairs were uncle and aunts. Grandma just kept adding rooms. We were multiple generations living in one house just to survive.”
It’s a phenomenon that Pine continues to see when she also goes door to door across her district in Leeward Oahu.
“Everything goes back to the lack of inventory for affordable housing,” Pine said. “People are not necessarily completely poor, but can’t find an affordable house for their income. This is a normal thing in Hawaii.”