An incident in Volcano has sparked discussion and concern about people squatting in vacant, abandoned, and deteriorating properties.
The volcano's neighbors took action after a parishioner was allegedly assaulted and sexually assaulted by James Michael Taylor, a homeless person known to crouch in the volcano.
"Well, after the initial shock, there was a lot of unrest in the community," said Linda Fuller, coordinator for Volcano Neighborhood Watch. "We knew he was crouching and the police questioned him before the incident, but there was nothing they could do to prove he had trespassed."
According to Fuller, several people reported Taylor to the police for verbal arguments, public poisoning and threats. Three people, including the victim, filed injunctions.
Taylor is still in custody after pleading not guilty to two first degree sexual assaults. He also pleaded not guilty of individual cases of attempted first-degree sexual assault, kidnapping, third-degree sexual assault, and third-degree assault.
On April 17, Judge Peter Kubota lowered Taylor's bail from $ 187,000 to $ 50,000 and suspended his trial on September 9.
"The whole community was a victim of that person, and we were really happy when his original judge put bail as high as he did," Fuller said. "When the new judge lowered his bail, he started another uproar in the community."
The volcano has empty homes, closed vacation rentals, and abandoned homes that community members say can be entered by people who know about the locations of the properties.
"We are dealing with repeated crimes in the area and squatters who appear to have more rights than residents," said Fuller. "Taylor was (supposedly) crouching in a house where the owner died, so there was no evidence he entered the house."
Although crouching is illegal in Hawaii, law enforcement agencies cannot arrest anyone unless there is evidence that they are not supposed to be there. This has become frustrating for many communities across the county.
"James Taylor really is the straw that broke the camel's back in our community," said Fuller. "Our officers bent over backwards to help us and I don't think it's fair for them to be blamed. James Taylor is the culprit. He's the one who did this."
Law enforcement has been grappling with problems caused by the occupation of counties across the country. Captain John Briski in Puna has worked closely with the communities to solve problems and educate people about laws that relate to the problem.
"We can know for sure that someone is crouching, but every crime requires a victim," said Captain Briski. “When someone enters, the owner is the victim. If owners don't cooperate, we have no victim or case for abuse. "
One of the most time consuming aspects of addressing a squatting can be finding and contacting owners of the vacant, abandoned, or deteriorated property or VAD property.
Officials can obtain information from the Real Property Tax Office. Once the owners are identified, the hardest part is contacting them. In many cases, an owner may have died or a bank may own the property.
"The officials spend an incredible amount of time tracking down people, calling banks or other mainland companies to find possible owners," Briski said. "It's time-consuming and we rarely find the people we need."
The Puna Police Department welcomes any information gathered from neighborhood watch groups and community associations who usually have a better understanding of their subdivisions and the vacant properties in their areas.
"Communication is always the best, and we get most of our information from neighborhood watch groups," said Briski. "If these groups believe there is a squatter and have the time to track down the owner, it will be extremely helpful to us."
The police can also be frustrated with the lack of squatting laws. However, there are many cases when crouching is not a source of criminal activity.
Many squatters temporarily enter the property and take care of it while they are there. Some do not bother anyone or are family units trying to put a roof over their children's heads.
"House prices have risen and it's not easy to move. Many people choose to squat out of necessity, which is difficult and sad to see," said Briski. with whom we are dealing. There is no law that regulates or even addresses every situation. "
Hawaii Councilor Ashley Kierkowicz wants to address the core issue of the squat as there is no single solution.
Kierkowicz has made squatting a part of her platform since she ran for the council in 2018. Following the Volcano incident, her office directed efforts to resolve the systemic problem.
Kierkowicz's office applied to attend a four-day intensive Vacant Property Leadership Institute through the Center for Community Progress and the National League of Cities. Executives from the four counties were invited to take part in a virtual cohort.
District leaders will meet to discuss fair solutions to problems with vacant properties. The cohort will help executives better understand the interconnected causes of VAD real estate and how to evaluate and reform systems at the state and local levels that contribute to the vacancy.
"We want to address the problem of VAD properties because we can control that," said Kierkowicz. "This will help us all learn how to make better use of the space we have, avoid problems and turn liabilities into assets."
With all counties invited to the virtual cohort, Kierkowicz will be in contact with council members from across the state to discuss various strategies and prepare any laws that could be presented to state lawmakers.
Some initiatives that Kierkowicz and her office have developed and discussed include creating a registry of vacant properties, creating a mapping tool to mitigate risks in the community, and creating a system for acquiring donated vacant properties from owners.
"Our current goal is to tackle the low hanging fruit to minimize risk," said Kierkowicz. "I think that means having a position coordinating vacant properties and working closely with neighborhood guards and organizations that already know about these problematic areas."
Kierkowicz has worked with neighborhood watch groups, law enforcement, community and nonprofit organizations to discuss best practice for the county to tackle squatting.
"The fact that the community will be part of the solution will empower the public and lead to a more sustainable solution," said Kierkowicz. “We want to work together from county to county because this problem requires holistic problem solving involving several private and public institutions. It's a systemic problem, not a one-size-fits-all. "
Although the county wants to mitigate the risks associated with VAD real estate, many people continue to live next to known squatters who may be engaged in criminal activities.
Judi Houle is the president of Hawaii Paradise Park Neighborhood Watch and has extensive experience with people squatting in vacant homes in the subdivision.
"Squatting is illegal, but criminals will take advantage of the slow legal system and absent owners," said Houle. "Squatters' neighbors need to gather relevant information and monitor suspicious activity in vacant houses, otherwise nothing will be done."
Houle suggests that homeowners reach out to their neighbors and get contact information from the people on the block. If someone only uses their home part-time, Houle suggests that the owners rent the home or keep it occupied and secure.
"If the house has been empty for a long time and you suddenly hear a generator or activity in the house, call the owner and the police," said Houle. "If the owner leaves the house and no longer lives in Hawaii, be their local representative and call the police."
For communities where squatting is a common problem, Houle suggests that people join the neighborhood watch, form block guards, and meet with their community cop.
Houle is also experienced in finding property owners through the Real Property Tax Office to facilitate the work of the police.
"Sometimes crouching can last for years and it's the neighbors and their community who suffer from nightly noise, drug trafficking, threats and degraded property," Houle said. "We need to fix this broken property system and lack of accountability and need a legal guardian for local property before it becomes a security issue."
On May 20, Mayor Mitch Roth attended a Volcano Neighborhood Watch meeting to address concerns and answer questions from community members who feel they are a target for squatters and other criminal activity.
To address concerns about police work, Roth decided to give the 25 participants some advice on how to look out for one another.
"The number one police force in this country is you, the community," said Roth. “A community becomes the eyes and ears of the police, but I think there is so much more. You have to be part of the solution by looking at problems, coming up with ideas, and responding to those ideas. "
In order to strengthen the communities, Roth would like the district to offer training on crime prevention through environmental design. The program is a multidisciplinary approach to crime prevention that uses urban and architectural design, as well as the management of built and natural environments.
CPTED strategies aim to reduce victimization, deter decisions by offenders who precede criminal activity, and build a sense of community among residents so that they can gain territorial control of areas, reduce crime and minimize fear of crime.
"You know what's going on, you're here every day. Instead of just being eyes and ears, you can be part of the solution," said Roth. "When communities are empowered to act, it has been proven time and again that crime can be reduced . "
Roth said he would like to take steps to alleviate the squatter and VAD property problem by potentially passing a law requiring part-time homeowners in Hawaii to provide an emergency contact number for someone on the island.
"One of the things I look at is how to get information from homeowners," said Roth. "I think that passing a law requiring homeowners in Hawaii to establish emergency contact may be necessary for the health and safety of people living on the island."
This potential law could come in handy in an emergency such as a natural disaster, fire, or break-in. If squatters were around when they shouldn't be, it would be a lot easier for the police to get in touch with the owners.
The volcano meeting brought many problems that residents faced, and many community members were able to meet their community police officer, make contacts from the county, and learn more about their own neighborhood watch.
After the alleged sexual assault in April, the Volcano Neighborhood Watch stepped up its efforts, with volunteers watching over the community every hour. During the meeting, Fuller asked for more volunteers to patrol the town.
Josh Naggs recently moved to Volcano with his family and volunteered for Neighborhood Watch after the last meeting.
“I recently moved here with my family and we care about this community and we want to help keep it safe,” said Naggs. "The fact is, one of our members was attacked, and that's scary."
Some Hawaii County Council members will attend the Neighborhood Watch meeting in Volcano next month to continue discussion of squatting and other community concerns.
Email Kelsey Walling at firstname.lastname@example.org