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Crackdown on squatters: Residents, police team up in Leilani Estates

Trespassers squatting in vacant homes has long been an issue in Puna, and residents of one subdivision have decided they won’t take it anymore.

Police, the Leilani Community Association and its neighborhood watch are working to start clearing the lower Puna subdivision — which was hard hit by Kilauea volcano’s lower East Rift Zone eruption this year — of unauthorized individuals in vacant homes. Some homes in the subdivision were left vacant because legal occupants didn’t return after evacuating. Others are legally unoccupied due to other issues, such as foreclosures.

“This is one of the biggest breakthroughs we’ve had since the flow started,” Jay Turkovsky, Leilani Community Association’s president, said Friday. “It’s significant enough that the board of directors decided two weeks ago that we are going to make it our number one priority.

“Technically, the way we’re handling it is trespass, which is a little more effective tool, legally. To evict everyone for squatting, even for trespassing, we need some kind of letter from the owner stating nobody should be living in the house. Therefore, anybody there living in the house would be trespassing.”

A couple, David Kainoa Paio and Tina Marie Yoon, both 47, were arrested by police on Christmas Day and charged with first-degree trespassing for allegedly squatting in a foreclosed home at 13-3529 Maile St., which, according to county tax records, is owned by Wells Fargo Bank.

“The house that this couple was arrested at … was one of three right in the same, very tight area that have had squatters in it,” Turkovsky said. “One of the couples that live right now in the house right next door are part of the neighborhood watch. So they were able to fill in a lot of details about the goings-on at 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning — shooting guns and loud, screaming, cursing parties and that sort of thing.

“… And I’d say we have about three squatted homes, in addition to the three that we’ve been working on — one of which has been solved.”

A Dec. 20 letter from Windermere Real Estate, representing the bank, said the property where the alleged squatters were nabbed is for sale, and “any and all occupants are trespassing.”

“We’ve sent a letter to Windermere Real Estate saying now that we’ve got the house vacated, we’re going to give you guys 24 hours to secure it. And they’ve written back that they were going to do that,” Turkovsky said. “Our alternative would be that … the association would do it themselves and add the charges to their annual fees.

“What we want is to get the house boarded up, the driveway blocked, (put) some ‘no trespassing’ signs up and take that house out of availability.”

Capt. Kenneth Quiocho, Puna police commander, referred to the sweep as a cooperative effort with the Leilani Community Association and “a partnership in preventing crime and safeguarding the area from criminal opportunities.”

“Anytime we have a financial burden that’s placed upon a homeowner and a residence becomes unoccupied, it becomes an issue where people … who are looking for a place to live basically drive around a neighborhood and find these vacant homes,” Quiocho said. “And they decide they’re going to move in and take these places over.

“The reason Leilani is being impacted so much, of course, is because they had the lava flow. Some people have not made the decision to come back yet. They don’t know what they’re going to do with their house and property. So it’s sitting there vacant.”

Quiocho said the sweep in progress isn’t related to claims by lower Puna residents that looters were raiding evacuated properties while the lava kept legal residents away from their homes.

“As far as the looting that was taking place, we don’t have any data that support the fact that all this criminal activity was taking place down there, and the police weren’t doing anything about it,” he said. “And that was kind of the theme of that entire message when that came out. And that’s not what we’re doing. What we’re doing right now is preventing people from taking over vacant houses and causing a disturbance in our neighborhoods.”

Asked for his take on looting claims during the lava crisis, Turkovsky replied, “Basically, those statements are true; regrettably, there are reasons for that.”

“Specifically, for one, the police can’t do anything about it without some information up front,” he added. “If there is a homeowner who gets broken into, then the police can respond — that is, if (the homeowner) is living in the house. If they aren’t in the house, then there are no witnesses, and it’s pretty hard to do anything about. We’ve had one home that got hit five different times. There are a number of others that have been hit twice. One of our board members has had a lawn mower and a weed-eater and some other things taken from his sister’s house, because he does the maintenance for her.”

The community association and police, including Quiocho, have a meeting scheduled for 10 a.m. Saturday, Jan. 5, at the Leilani Community Center, 3441 Moku St. Leilani residents are encouraged to attend.

“If it was not for them taking a proactive approach to what was going on in the neighborhood, it was going to be very difficult for us to work these types of incidents,” Quiocho said. “Some of them have to do with the landlord-tenant (code), which is a civil matter. And the county’s not going to get involved in that. And it’s frustrating for people who live in the area, because they constantly see this activity taking place and feel kind of helpless about it, because nothing is being done or can be done.”

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.
Source: Hawaii Tribune Herald

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