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FEMA Wants Maui Homeowner To Repay $58,000 After Booting Her From Lease Program For Fire Survivors

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FEMA Wants Maui Homeowner To Repay $58,000 After Booting Her From Lease Program For Fire Survivors

Jun 07, 2024 | 8:23 am ET
By Cammy Clark
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Bettina Robinson went through the documents, emails and receipts she accumulated during the process to have her home in Kihei part of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s direct-lease program. (Cammy Clark/Civil Beat/2024)
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Bettina Robinson went through the documents, emails and receipts she accumulated during the process to have her home in Kihei part of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s direct-lease program. (Cammy Clark/Civil Beat/2024)

Kihei property owner Bettina Robinson recently received an unexpected notice. The Federal Emergency Management Agency is removing her three-bedroom home from its program to house Maui fire survivors — and making her repay the $58,450 in rental income she’s received for it since January.

“I’m in shock,” Robinson said Monday. “I did nothing wrong.”

Several other property owners in FEMA’s direct-lease program said they were similarly blindsided last month by cancellation notices. But they weren’t asked to repay any of the money. Rather, they received one additional month of rent, per their contracts.

Lima Charlie, one of three companies FEMA hired to run its direct-lease program, notified Robinson of the cancelation and repayment requirement in a letter sent by email May 15.

“It has been brought to our attention, as well as FEMA’s, that the property owner has begun construction on this unit and has obstructed all entrances,” the letter says. “Consequently, this unit is no longer available for licensing and is deemed unsafe and non-functional for the Direct Lease Program. Therefore, it will be withdrawn at no cost to the government.”

Robinson said that is not true, and on Monday provided Civil Beat with a tour of the home. She said the only recent construction on her home, due to heavy rain, was replacing screens with windows in a storage room, which is attached to the back of the home but not part of the rental unit. The rental has two separate entrances, and she said neither was blocked.

She’s not the only person frustrated with the experience. In February, Lahaina fire survivors Zach Ruidas and his twin brother were matched with Robinson’s brown home on a cul-de-sac.

Twice they drove 50 minutes from Lahaina so FEMA workers could move them into it. The first time the brothers said they waited in their car on the street for more than an hour for the FEMA workers to show up before rescheduling. The second time they made the trip they received bad news.

“When we went, it looked nice,” Zach Ruidas said Monday. “We talked to (Robinson) and she said she had a Jacuzzi. … We were excited. I was ready to move in.”

But the FEMA workers told the brothers, both 21, that the property had been cut from the program due to a legal issue.

“I have no clue what they were talking about,” Ruidas said.

But it was another three months before Robinson received notice that her property was cut. And during the interim, there was another failed match in April with a family of four, and another FEMA visit in May.

In a text to Robinson, a Lima Charlie representative said FEMA’s May visit was part of a “license in” of a new match. But Robinson said she never was informed about a third match.

These are the latest problems — incurred by both fire survivors and property owners — that have cropped up with the federal program that is designed to help displaced people with more stable housing.

The program began in November with the hiring of three out-of-state companies to run it and has dragged on for months, resulting in hundreds of units sitting empty while hundreds of survivors continue to live in pricier, cramped resort rooms. Monday is the latest deadline for when FEMA will stop reimbursing the state for the remaining eligible fire survivors still living in hotels.

Nearly 1,000 households have moved into direct leases. At one point, there were about 1,500 units in the program, according to FEMA. It is not known how many more households are eligible for the program or how many cancellations are expected. It also is not known if any other property owners are being required to pay back rent.

FEMA has not responded to repeated emails and calls for comment and information.

Meanwhile, Robinson said she is “panicking” and “stress eating” not knowing how she will pay back nearly $60,000, some of which she already used to pay off credit cards.

The Maui resident of 40 years said she spent nearly $8,000 to meet FEMA’s requirements and to make the rental, which her husband moved out of, comfortable for people who had gone through the traumatic Aug. 8 fire in Lahaina.

“I spent a lot of money because I wanted to make this nice for people to heal here,” she said. “The money was good, too, but that was secondary.”

Lima Charlie, listed as the tenant, entered into a contract with Robinson for $10,500 per month. FEMA reimburses Lima Charlie for the rent and pays the company property management fees. It is not clear if Lima Charlie will be able to keep its fees for this property.

Lima Charlie’s president, David Waldbauer, did not respond to repeated emails and phone messages for comment.

Robinson, a notary, has manila folders full of receipts for new box springs and mattresses, sheets, dressers, fire alarms and maintenance on the Jacuzzi. She spent $1,350 on a deep-clean of the 906-square-foot home, $300 on installation and reinspection of a single GFI outlet and painted the interior walls herself.

Robinson shared a tax filing of $3,102 in general excise taxes she paid the state for the rental income through June 30 (including $10,500 for June rent she expected but did not receive). And she is worried she will have to come up with another $539 for the property tax break she received from the county.

She said FEMA inspected her house three times, with one inspection showing the only problem was the GFI did not work properly. She paid $261 for an independent inspection in March by Island Inspection Services that showed everything “appeared serviceable.”

The match after the twin brothers was with a family of four that had two children ages 3 and 7. Robinson said the father was upset when he learned the home wouldn’t work for his family.

She said she didn’t blame him. Before they arrived, Robinson had sent an email to Lima Charlie saying the home was not suitable for children because it did not have access to the yard due to her elderly dog and it had a Jacuzzi that presented liability issues.

“Not that I’m trying to pick and choose my tenants, but it just didn’t make sense,” she said.

She said it also made no sense that four days after receiving the notice she was canceled from the program, Lima Charlie sent Clean Freaks to her home to do a spruce up cleaning.

After the Ruidas brothers were not allowed to move into Robinson’s home, they spent another month or two in hotel rooms before being matched again, this time in a Kihei condo called Island Surf that is even farther from their jobs at Leilani’s on the Beach in Kaanapali. That condo, by coincidence, is owned by Robinson’s sister.