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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The KPT lawsuit was the only thing that improved the complex, says Victor Geminiani, the head LEJ attorney. So Geminiani and his team sued the state again, this time for repairs at Mayor Wright. “We’re going to be on the housing authority for as long as there are problems it is looking the other way for,” he says. The state wants to again settle, and Geminiani hopes the case is resolved by the end of the year. “The problem is the time frame for the resolving the settlement,” he adds. “KPT took a year; that’s too much time. The state needs to take this seriously.”
Mayor Wright Homes is smaller than KPT, but it’s older, built in 1952. It comprises 35 one-to-two story walk-ups, totaling approximately 364 units. It desperately needs a systematic, top-to-bottom renovation. On a recent visit, the wear-and-tear was evident: The beige and sage-green paint on the buildings was peeling, the roofs were leaking and the metal jalousie frames were corroded. Where children should be playing on monkey bars and swings, sit painted tires, boulders and piles of dirt. Inside the units, wooden cupboards are warped and rotting, stoves and refrigerators are dilapidated, miraculously still functioning. Power cords are taped to the walls so rats and mice don’t chew through them. In recent years, bedbugs have infiltrated the beds and furniture. There have always been cockroaches. Disabled residents rely on family or friends to help them in and around their houses; none of the units are compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
So, what is the state’s side of the story? Why have these problems persisted for years? Calls for interviews with Denise Wise, the HPHA executive director, and Patricia McManaman, the DHS director, weren’t returned. Joe Perez, spokesperson for DHS, says they can’t comment because of the lawsuit. There were plenty of other issues to discuss, however.
“It’s very frustrating,” says state Rep. Karl Rhoads, whose district includes Mayor Wright Homes. “I’ve been complaining to the Hawaii Public Housing Authority about issues brought before me by tenants for years.” He says he’s written 30 to 40 letters to the Authority about security concerns and lack of maintenance. Rhoads says the Authority’s responses are always the same: There’s not enough funding, or the Authority is working on it. In the meantime, residents are treated like second-class citizens. We spent time with these families to see life from their perspective, as residents of Mayor Wright.
“The gangs control the property."
Fetu Kolio opens the door to the Mayor Wright tenants’ association office, essentially a small, mostly bare room. Children’s art hangs on the wall; the space doubles as the Hawaii Literacy program meeting area. “Hi, Uncle Fetu!” shout the children being read to in a semicircle on the carpeted floor. “Hi, kids,” he replies, before heading up the stairs to the computer lab, where students use the Internet and type up their homework.