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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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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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Honolulu Magazine July 2019
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