A Colorado Springs attorney, with connections to Hawaii, helped win a case providing protections for tenants in affordable housing in the Aloha State.
Joe Lambert, of the global firm Hogan Lovells, was the lead pro bono counsel in this 9th district case, which helped residents stay in their homes. The case focused on the organization Front Street Affordable Housing Partners, which received low-income housing tax credits for a development on Maui about 20 years ago. A stipulation within those credits, which is part of federal law, required the organization to keep the development as affordable housing for 51 years, going through 2051. In this case, the developer tried to get out of that agreement.
“The developer went to the state and said, ‘Hey, we know we agreed to 51 years originally, but we think the federal statute allows us to opt out of this program after 15 years,’” Lambert said. “That was really the crux of the legal dispute that we had with them.”
Lambert, along with a team of other lawyers, represented three current tenants in the complex and one prospective tenant. He said it was mostly a legal case, not a factual dispute.
The federal district court in Hawaii agreed with Lambert’s interpretation of the statute, ruling the developer agreed to the 51 years at the start and waived its right to elect out. The developer appealed the decision to the 9th Circuit, but FSA filed a voluntary motion to dismiss the appeal with prejudice this month. Lambert continued, saying that the developer announced it has now reached an agreement with the Hawaii Housing and Finance Development Corporation, under which it has agreed to keep rent at affordable rates for a period of 75 years.
“It’s important to me for several reasons,” Lambert said of the original 51-year agreement, before the 75-year agreement was reached. “This project is one of the few affordable housing projects on the island of Maui now and it was critical that [the] project remain affordable throughout the entire duration of the original declaration. … Not only for all the tenants who currently reside there and who will reside there over the next several decades, and who will benefit from the decision by being able to live there at much lower rents than what would be available at market level, but in particular, our clients who live there right now … who for various reasons simply can’t afford to pay market rates for an apartment are going to be able to continue to live there.”
One of the items at issue was the Hawaii HHFDC originally “rubber stamped” FSA getting out of the 51-year agreement. Lambert said the reason why that initially happened was because after 15 years, the developer approached the state saying their interpretation of the federal statute allows them to opt out after 15 years.
Under this theory, the developer approaches the state — in this case the HHFDC — after having the project in service for a minimum of 15 years. At this point, the state would be required to offer and advertise the project to the general public for a certain statutory price. If there’s no buyer within a one-year period, the low-income restrictions are then lifted by the operation of the statute.
The judge in the case ultimately agreed with the tenants, allowing the plaintiffs to stay in their homes.
“The incredible stress for so many people, not knowing if they would lose their home, has really taken its toll,” said Mike Tuttle, a Front Street resident and a plaintiff in the case, in a press release. “It’s hard to put into words the level of joy and relief we all feel now that it’s over, but it’s extremely sad that it had to come to this.”
Chi Guyer, one of the residents at Front Street, added he is very appreciative of all the work the attorneys did.
“It is wonderful to know that we [will] continue to have a home here at FSA and mahalo to the attorneys for coming to the aid of the folks who live at FSA who have, for over four years, waited with [bated] breath to learn whether or not our homes would be here for us,” he said in a press release.
Lambert got involved in the case because his firm has a relationship in Washington D.C. with Hawai’i Appleseed, a non-profit that looks into low-income housing issues and associated matters. Lambert also has direct ties to Hawaii, which gathered his interest.
“A partner … asked me to work on the case and I mentioned to him I actually lived in Hawaii for six years when I was younger, from ages 10 to 16, at the Air Force base there when my dad was stationed there,” Lambert said. “So I had that connection to Hawaii and that’s one reason why I initially found the case kind of interesting… What was really interesting though, the courthouse this case was heard in was the same courthouse I had visited as a kid on a field trip one day.”
Lambert said he hasn’t worked on other housing issues in Colorado, but this case may have given him the itch to do more, as he’s more familiar with the statute.
Others who worked with Lambert on this four-year case from Hogan Lovells include partner Cate Stetson, associate Cory Wroblewski and paralegal Heather Briggs. The tenants were also represented by lawyers from the Honolulu non-profit Lawyers for Equal Justice, including Victor Geminiani and Ray Kong. Maui attorney Lance Collins was also involved in the case.