The president of Leilani Community Association and the chairman of a committee formed to deal with squatters and resultant crime say progress has been made since they and police united late last year to clear illegal occupants from vacant homes in the lower Puna subdivision ravaged by Kilauea volcano’s lower East Rift Zone eruption.
“As a personal observation, I have heard much less about somebody getting ripped off or whatever,” said LCA President Jay Turkovsky, who praised police and the committee chaired by Andy Andrews.
Andrews also sees progress, saying Leilani Estates residents “picked a couple of the worst offenders to be our first successes.”
“We’ve had gunshots. We’ve had fistfights in the middle of the street. A lot of those folks, we’ve gotten out,” Andrews said.
He noted that instead of the lengthy civil process of eviction, the Leilani committee and police have tracked down homeowners, when possible, and secured a letter stating no one is supposed to be on the property.
“And then we go after it with trespass laws instead of squatter laws,” Andrews said. “We can have police come in and serve immediate trespass notices, which means the people who are in the house have to get out, right then and there. The police literally escort them out of the house.”
According to Andrews, many of the squatters also were arrested on outstanding warrants unrelated to the trespassing charges.
“We’ve seen an appreciable drop in crime here in Leilani by virtue of that,” Andrews said. “A lot of the crime was being done between one in the morning and five in the morning. A lot of those folks, who are the druggies, they’re not out here in those hours as much as they have been. We haven’t eliminated it entirely, though.”
Police Capt. John Briski, Puna district commander, described the push to get squatters out as “slow going, but it’s an effort that we’re going to continue to move in trying to address each situation.”
“Initiatives formed between the police and numerous associations in Puna have really stepped forward with a combined effort on the squatting problem — throughout the district of Puna, not just Leilani Estates. We’ve seen some unprecedented cooperation with our (County Council) people and state representatives who have put forward some new legislation to try to assist with those situations,” Briski said.
A pair of bills introduced by state Rep. Joy San Buenaventura of Puna, House Bills 1557 and 287, survived the crossover from the House to the Senate and passed their first readings in the latter chamber Monday. Neither have yet received committee referrals in the Senate. Both measures focus on houses in foreclosure.
HB 1557 would impose fines on a homeowner, foreclosing party or purchaser in foreclosure when a vacant residential property remains unoccupied during the foreclosure process, and establishes conditions under which a property may be rented.
HB 287 would require counties to expedite demolition permits for vacant and abandoned residential homes and allow the Department of Taxation to use nonjudicial foreclosure to sell vacant and abandoned residential properties with outstanding state tax liens.
Briski said while Leilani’s problems are exacerbated by homes abandoned because of lava, as well as foreclosure, the squatter problem residents are facing isn’t unique.
“I think it’s the same as what’s going on everywhere else,” he said. “I think Leilani was brought to the forefront because they have an active neighborhood watch that’s moving forward trying to address those situations.
“But this is a problem not only for the district of Puna, but for the whole county. There’s not a district in this county that doesn’t have this problem.”
Email John Burnett at firstname.lastname@example.org.