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County Councilwoman Hopes to Address Squatting Problems With Creation of Task Force

By Tiffany DeMasters
August 13, 2021, 6:24 AM HST
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Volcano residents are reaching out to lawmakers after petty crimes in their community earlier this year escalated to a reported sexual assault perpetrated by a man who was suspectedly squatting in a vacant home in the neighborhood.

Hawai‘i County Councilwoman Ashley Kierkiewicz, who represents the eastern Puna district, plans to present a resolution to her colleagues in the coming weeks and create a task force to address what she describes as a squatting crisis on the Big Island.

Kierkiewicz said there are residents who have been dealing with squatters for years, adding that “it’s a nightmare.”

“When you think of families and communities in general, residents shouldn’t have to bear the burden for dealing with this crap,” Kierkiewicz said.

If the task force is approved, Kierkiewicz hopes to bring together a broad group of agencies, from the private and public sectors to nonprofit organizations, in an effort to lift the burden of squatters off the backs of residents and into the hands of people who can make a change.

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“One of the key objectives of the task force is to pinpoint challenges and barriers so we can determine what opportunities to create change exist on the state level,” Kierkiewicz stated.

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She hopes to file a resolution to be heard during Hawai‘i County Council Committee on Aug. 18 or Sept. 7.

The Squatter Problem

In conversations with residents, Kierkiewicz said the bulk of the problematic properties either belong to owners not on the island or are properties that have been foreclosed on and repossessed by banks.

For the past 20 years, there has been a myriad of reasons why residents have left their homes. Between job loss, the rising cost of living and natural disasters, such as the 2018 eruption, conditions have resulted in families deciding to move or leave temporarily, which has been followed by foreclosures of properties, Hawai‘i Police Department Maj. Kenneth Quiocho explained.

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Quiocho said squatting is most prevalent where the opportunities exist to buy land or buy a home at a reasonable price. From his experience, he’s seen the issue in Hawaiian Ocean View Estates as well as in the Puna District.

Contacting the owner of a property who lives off island is difficult as the real property tax profile only contains the owner’s name and mailing address. With no local contact to confirm whether someone is allowed to be at the house or on the land, law enforcement can’t serve trespassing notices. And Quiocho said authorities can’t remove someone from a property unless a crime has been committed.

Neighbors could potentially pursue civil cases against squatters, but law enforcement doesn’t get involved in those.

Linda Fuller, Volcano resident and member of Neighborhood Watch, said the squatting issue came to the forefront in their community about three or four years ago, but for the past six months, it’s been a top concern.

When trying to reach a property owner, Fuller said, the only resource she’s been able to look to was the county’s tax map key. Even if the information is up-to-date, the Volcano woman said it’s almost impossible to get a hold of anyone.

“It’s hard to get hold of them (property owners),” Fuller said. “Sometimes you get a hold of them and they just don’t care. They would just assume to let it go to rack and ruin.”

Authorities can take action if squatters are breaking any laws. If they have warrants, police will arrest them. If they commit crimes, Quiocho said police will investigate them. If they leave junk cars and trash, they are cited. Otherwise, Quiocho said, there’s no law on the books that allows authorities to evict someone from a property unless a crime has been committed.

“We make it as difficult and uncomfortable for them to stay where they are in the hopes that they will leave,” Quiocho said. “Again, the problem here is where do they go? Most likely another vacant residence and we start this all over again.”

The police need help.

“We need tougher laws, we need to hold people accountable, we need to hold these banks and finance companies accountable, we need to stop tolerating this kind of activity and get involved,” Quiocho said. “If we work together, we will make an impact, but it is going to take a collaborative effort.”

After various meetings with county officials and community groups, Kierkiewicz thought she found the least controversial path to addressing the squatter issue — through the property tax key by proposing to include additional contact information such as email addresses and phone numbers. In cases where the owner is a non-resident, identify an on-island representative who can be available to answer questions related to the property.

“It seems so simple to get the contact information to use it for this purpose,” the councilwoman stated.

This information, she explained, wouldn’t be public but it could be made available to county agencies to call property owners or their representatives and share reports of possible squatters, verifying if someone should be living there.

“I also thought that this information would be valuable in times of disaster, where folks could be alerted if an eruption or hurricane was impending, or to check in with folks post-natural disaster,” Kierkiewicz stated.

Kierkiewicz submitted a draft bill for an ordinance to the county’s legal counsel in winter 2019. However, she was informed that the ordinance was beyond the scope of the function of the real property tax and that new language would need to be added to the county code, sending the councilwoman back to the drawing board.

Hope for Change

On July 16, Fuller, the Volcano resident, sent a letter to Sen. Richard Onishi inviting him to attend their next neighborhood watch meeting on Aug. 18. The intent was to discuss the squatting issue and request changes be made that allow for a geographic ban for repeat criminal offenders who don’t have a legal permanent residence in Volcano.

“We’re trying to get a law changed that they should have to prove they’re allowed to be there, not the other way around,” Fuller said. “We shouldn’t have to disprove.”

Onishi responded back to Fuller via email. He stated he wasn’t able to attend the meeting, but said he would see what specific proposals he could address through the judiciary committee in the next legislative session.

Fuller has also been working with Kierkiewicz to find a solution on a county level. Volcano Neighborhood Watch, along with other neighborhood watch groups, have been coordinating with the councilwoman to obtain information regarding vacant properties.

With the potential task force, Kierkiewicz hopes to hold owners responsible for problematic properties.

“If you don’t live here, designate someone we can reach within 24 hours,” she said. “If it’s vacant and for sale, it needs to be noted. If there’s a long-term tenant it needs to be noted.”

If the County Council approves the task force, Kierkiewicz said, the agencies will take on three different issues to coming up with a solution to the squatting problem.

The first is the legal mechanism. Kierkiewicz hopes to define squatting on the state level so they can regulate it on the county side, saying, “if it isn’t defined, we can’t do much about it.”

The second is to create an operational infrastructure, a way for people to contact property owners to inform them of possible illegal activity happening on their properties.

The third is the managerial capacity to handle data that is collected.

Kierkiewicz recognizes the opportunity to turn these abandoned properties into something productive. She hopes the county can facilitate partnerships to solve this problem.

“This isn’t about growing government, but everyone working as a collective on it,” Kierkiewicz said.

As she builds her task force, Kierkiewicz hopes to engage state leaders in this conversation from the Legislature up to Lt. Gov. Josh Green.

Additionally, Kierkiewicz wants the Department of Land and Natural Resources as well as the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands to be part of the conversation.

Various county agencies would need to be involved as well. Community groups, such as Neighborhood Watch, will continue to be a necessity in battling this problem.

Kierkiewicz anticipates task force members coming from housing, business, nonprofit and philanthropic sectors.

“This would be a volunteer effort,” Kierkiewicz said. “While I don’t foresee a need for county funds at the moment, I’d certainly contribute contingency funds if there’s a need. I’d like to see what we can get done with the resources and relationships we have as a collective before spending money.”

Kierkiewicz thinks the mayor’s office would be happy to chip in as well, if needed.

“These are pieces of the puzzle that we’ve got to step up and address (for) the situation,” the councilwoman stated.

Tiffany DeMasters
Tiffany DeMasters is a reporter for Big Island Now. Tiffany worked as the cops and courts reporter for West Hawaii Today from 2017 to 2019. She also contributed stories to Ke Ola Magazine and Honolulu Civil Beat.
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