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Mayor Wright Homes: Public Housing Hell

Gang activity, rat infestations, deteriorating walls and ceilings, and, until this June, no hot, running water. For the approximately 1,100 tenants of Mayor Wright Homes, this is life. Years of neglect forced residents to sue the state. Lawyers want to settle the case this year to finally reverse these deplorable conditions. But for these residents, positive change has been years in the making.


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For years, Frances Wong warmed pots of water on the stove before pouring them into the tub to bathe her four foster children. She wasn’t the only one: 70 percent of her neighbors also lived without hot, running water. It wasn’t until this June that she could take a bath simply by turning on the shower faucet. Wong and her family live in Mayor Wright Homes, the state’s second largest public-housing complex.

It made front-page news—Mayor Wright tenants finally had hot water, all day, any day. Gov. Neil Abercrombie himself visited the Kalihi residents, the first governor to do so in years, and appropriated almost $515,000 to install gas-powered, tankless water heaters, promising additional funding. It may have appeared hot water was all the residents needed. It is not. They still fight for control of their homes against mice, rats, cockroaches and bedbugs. They’re still terrorized by gangs. Last month, a 24-year-old man, and Mayor Wright tenant, was stabbed and killed near one of the complex’s dumpsters. Many have no choice but to live with these conditions, in a place they call home. Most Mayor Wright residents receive government assistance or are unemployed, so even if they wanted to move out, they couldn’t afford to. These people, some of whom have been residents for decades, like Wong, are victims of the ineptitude of the Hawaii Public Housing Authority (HPHA) and the state Department of Human Services (DHS), the agencies responsible for providing safe and adequate homes for low-income families who live in public-housing complexes such as Mayor Wright. Residents had to sue in a class-action lawsuit this April for Abercrombie and the state to finally begin reversing the deplorable conditions at Mayor Wright.

This scenario might sound familiar. Three years ago, attorneys with the legal-aid nonprofit Lawyers for Equal Justice (LEJ) filed a class-action lawsuit against the housing authority and Realty Laua LLC for the unsafe and uninhabitable conditions at Kuhio Park Terrace (KPT). The state attorney general’s office finally settled, after initially trying to get the case dismissed, and, in May, New Jersey company Michaels Development began a $135-million, six-year renovation.

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