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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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.

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Honolulu Magazine September 2018
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