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.

 

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.”


Frances Wong has lived at Mayor Wright  Homes for 41 years.

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.

 

Fetu Kolio patrols Mayor Wright to help curb violent crimes, such as the fatal stabbing of TJ “Tipuk” Mori (memorialized below).

Kolio, a stocky man who seldom makes eye contact when he talks, is a well-known figure at Mayor Wright. The 43-year-old has lived in the housing complex since 2004. He resides in a one-bedroom, ground-floor unit with his wife, Eleanor, and is Wong’s neighbor.

In 2009, he was elected president of the tenant’s association, a position in which he takes great pride. He goes out of his way to get to know not only his neighbors, but also residents throughout the complex. He listens to their problems and helps them speak to the police and building management, particularly Micronesian residents who are new to the area. He spent hours walking us around the complex, pointing out cracked windows and decomposing roof eaves, and talking story with tenants along the way. With his outgoing nature, he was a natural choice as a plaintiff in the lawsuit (Wong is one, too).

Shortly after becoming association president, Kolio started a citizen’s patrol. On Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, from 10 p.m. to midnight, Kolio and a handful of residents walk the complex with a security guard.

“I’m not trying to rely too much on the Public Housing Authority or police because it’s going nowhere,” says Kolio. “It’s almost senseless, it’s like talking to a brick wall.”

Geminiani says security is a lynchpin of the lawsuit. “You’ve got these guards that are not trained, that are not picked out from a particularly good quality base,” he says. He’s arguing for better training for guards, a stronger enforcement protocol and a better relationship with the Kalihi-beat police officers.

 

The Wong household is always bustling with Wong’s foster children and her grandchildren. Her adult children are now her caretakers.

Mayor Wright Homes used to be part of HPD’s Weed and Seed program, but the department ended the complex’s program in 2003. Since then, gang presence—including the Bloods—has increased. It’s common to see adults and teenagers, mostly men, drinking and loitering outside the buildings at night and dealing and/or doing drugs. But they don’t stop there: Gangs vandalize homes and cars, shattering windows with rocks, bats and BB guns. Residents are assaulted with these same weapons or punched and kicked. Assailants are rarely arrested.

“We’ve had assaults on tenants and it’s so ridiculous, because no one seems to care from the Public Housing Authority,” says Kolio. “These assaults are by people that don’t reside there, so you can’t evict nobody.” Kolio himself has restraining orders on a handful of men. He’s been threatened and has had his windows smashed. “It was early morning, maybe 2 a.m., I’m dead asleep, all I hear is rocks flying through, my wife is screaming, she’s terrified. I came outside, there’s no suspects, they’re long gone.”

Kolio thinks he was targeted because he’s part of the citizen’s patrol and is vigilant in calling the cops, unlike some other residents, who are afraid. Gangs also target many of their victims because of their ethnicity, or as retaliation. Virtually every adult resident has experienced vandalism and some form of assault, or has witnessed it. A tenant, who didn’t want to be named, said a gang member broke his brother’s jaw, and, in the past two months, he’s had his own windows smashed twice. Wong, too, says she sees gangs loitering outside on a nightly basis.

“Security guards are always on the property, because they’re getting paid with taxpayer dollars, but, if you ask me, what’s the results? Nothing. The gangs continue to control the evenings, the property itself,” says Kolio.

During the day, only one HPHA-contracted guard is on duty at Mayor Wright, and he or she stays at the front-entrance guard shack, essentially giving criminals free reign everywhere else. In two shifts, from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., two guards roam the property, but aren’t much of a deterrent. Another Mayor Wright resident, who wanted to remain anonymous, says gang members terrorize him as he’s walking to his building after his graveyard shift.

 

Children play on painted tires, where there used to be the complex’s playground. The slides and swings were vandalized and haven’t been replaced since.

After someone cracked both of resident Ene Augafa’s windows with BB guns, he had to meticulously cover them with masking tape. “Management said they gonna fix it,” he says. “We’ll see what happens.”

Rhoads introduced a bill this past session to appropriate funds for a two-year pilot project to beef up security, but it didn’t pass Senate muster. “I feel like I’m beating my head against the wall about security [concerns].”

“It’s left on deaf ears,” says Kolio. “There’s a big difference with public housing, it’s like you’re on your own with your survival skills.”

“They need to get rid of the infestation."

Wong’s home is always bustling. Diapered children run down the hall, laughing, up to their tutu to give her kisses. “The kids is what keeps the life, it’s what keeps you young,” says Wong, sitting on blanketed futon. Christian posters hang on the walls above her. A white fan whirs nearby, pulling in trade winds through the screen door.

Wong, a petite woman with short hair and light eyes, has lived at Mayor Wright for the past 41 years. Until a stroke in 2008 that paralyzed the left side of her body, she was used to doing everything herself. When her three sons and daughter were grown, she took in a relative’s four children, to prevent them from being separated in different foster homes. On top of cooking and cleaning, she waged a nightly battle against rodents and insects. She’d called the building’s management office too many times to count, so she’d seek alternative solutions to her problems. When a repairman didn’t show up to fix a hole caused by rats chewing through the rotten wall beneath her bathroom sink, Wong went out to the garbage area, found a piece of scrap plywood and boarded it up herself. It’s still there today.

Today, Wong relies on assistance from her son, Raymond, and her daughter, Theresa. Theresa was evicted from Mayor Wright in 2004 and has been homeless for the past three years. She spends her days helping her mom, cleaning and doing laundry. At night she sleeps at the nearby park. She was trying to find a job before Wong had a stroke, but now is her mom’s caretaker.

Wong and the kids, ages 10 to 16, live off checks from Child Protective Services and Social Security. Utilities are not included in her monthly rent of $325. To make ends meet, Wong receives food from the Lanakila Meals on Wheels program and Theresa takes the family to food banks.

Wong also relies on handouts, such as the futon from a friend. The family got rid of most of their furniture because of bedbugs, including the kids’ bunk beds. They now sleep on mats on the floor. (Many residents battle bedbugs; pieces of infested furniture are piled near the dumpsters.) Wong says they also had to throw out her first wheelchair because of the infestation. It got so bad that she’s  been banned from physical therapy until the pest problem is under control.

Wong says the management is supposed to provide four mice traps to residents every month, but only some people get them. “Because of holes and the concrete is so old, we can clean and spray and when we put the stuff back they going to come right back,” says Theresa, adding that Alazay Miller, the youngest foster child, often climbs into bed with Wong at night because of the mice and roaches crawling around.

 

Next door, Kolio has the same pest problems. He says it doesn’t take long to fill a large trap with 20 cockroaches—the big ones. “The management says pest problems is because of tenants’ lousy housekeeping,” he says, shaking his head.

There’s no compassion from the management, says Wong. “I’ve been told, if you no like stay here why don’t you move out,” she says. “I told them if I had the money I would go long time ago.”


Attorney Victor Geminiani.

Fighting for Their Rights

The case is built around five issues, says attorney Victor Geminiani. The lawsuit calls for damages to three plaintiffs and the Mayor Wright tenants, and these improvements:

  • Restoring hot water for all tenants (it was temporarily fixed in June)
  • Pest control
  • Eliminating the extensive maintenance backlog
  • Strengthening security
  • Making the units compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act

“Management doesn’t care."

Ene Augafa has lived in Mayor Wright Homes for 20 years. He’s a regular with the citizen’s patrol and a father figure to some of the younger male residents. When it comes to repairs and services for the disabled, he’s tired of seeing nothing being done. As we walk to his house, he points out three vacant units, in Buildings 24 and 26, being used by the Housing Authority for storage. “It takes a home away from someone,” he says.

Augafa has been advocating for an actual community center for years. Management will say one already exists, but it’s basically a large room in the management office building. (You can tell it’s the complex’s offices, because the building is painted gray, and looks newer and nicer that those surrounding it.) The room is meant as a gathering place.

“But, it’s upstairs,” says Augafa. “The disabled can’t get there. Management doesn’t care.”

That’s why conforming to ADA standards is a part of the Mayor Wright lawsuit, says Geminiani. “I would say 25 percent to 40 percent of tenants in each unit are covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act—many units have three to five people living in them,” he says. “They have a right to request reasonable accommodations.”

Wong says she lucked out in getting her ground-floor unit, but, at the time, in 1994, it was because she needed extra space for the children. Would management have moved her downstairs if she didn’t have the children, but was disabled? The family doesn’t like to think about it.

“It’s all about helping the people, our people."

Wong may now be able to take a warm bath, but, for her, Kolio and the hundreds of other residents at Mayor Wright, the state still has a long way to go in providing them with suitable housing.

For as long as that takes, Kolio says he’ll keep organizing the tenant’s association, walking with the citizen’s patrol and calling the cops, even despite dwindling support from his own wife. “The passion I have is tremendously strong,” says Kolio. “It’s all about helping the people, our people.”

When Kolio is not at Mayor Wright, he’s either working as a ticket usher at Aloha Stadium or at the state Capitol, attending public, legislative meetings. He’s even close with Rhoads. “When it comes to public housing, you’ve got to have a champion,” says Rhoads. “Fetu is that champion for Mayor Wright.”

And yet, despite Kolio’s perseverance, despite Rhoads’ bills and resolutions, it took a class-action lawsuit for the state to start to do its job. “We’re asking for nothing new in these five issues,” says Geminiani. “Logic or the law should tell them, they’ve got to do it anyway. I can guarantee you, if this case had not been brought … we wouldn’t have gotten anything.”

 

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