Lawyers representing residents of the 364-unit Mayor Wright public housing project in Kalihi have announced a $350,000 settlement to compensate residents for living in decrepit conditions.

The state also must continue to improve conditions at Mayor Wright, which still has an immediate repair and maintenance backlog of more than $14 million — although there is also a plan to eventually tear down and rebuild the complex.

The settlement comes four years after the nonprofit Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice and its for-profit partner, Alston, Hunt, Floyd & Ing, filed a lawsuit on behalf of Mayor Wright residents, who spent years living in deteriorating units with poor security, no hot water and pest infestations.

Kids play inside Mayor Wright public housing for Anita story.  Didn’t notice much neglect or damage. After speaking to several residents most declined to let me check out inside their residences.  31 jan 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Children at the Mayor Wright public housing project.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The $350,000 will go to about 400 households, as well as cover attorneys’ fees and other court costs.

Since the lawsuit was filed, the state has spent about $4.5 million upgrading Mayor Wright to meet health and safety standards. Under the settlement, the state has an obligation to continue repairing facilities.

While conditions have improved, more repairs are needed. According to the Hawaii Public Housing Authority, the immediate need for repairs and maintenance at Mayor Wright is $14,475,046. That would cover the renovation of interior units, including the electrical and mechanical systems. It also includes paving, site utilities and site lighting.

Whether those repairs are ever made depends on how quickly the state acts on a plan to partner with Hunt Companies to tear down and rebuild the project and add 1,140 units.

“We’re really worried that there’s going to be a significant slippage (in funding public housing) now that this case is resolved.” —Victor Geminiani, Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice

“It’s been a dramatic improvement, but I can assure you it’s not luxury condos we’re looking at here,” said Gavin Thornton, attorney at the Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice. “The public housing system is all about helping people out of poverty … But for that to happen you need a place that is healthy, that is safe, that is a decent place to live.”

Kazner Alexander, a Mayor Wright resident and one of the plaintiffs, described the difficulty of carrying his wife up and down stairs every day because the public housing agency refused to place them in a ground floor unit.

John Rhee, an attorney for Alston, Hunt, Floyd & Ing, said there were many instances in which tenants complained but didn’t receive the help they needed. In some cases, duct tape was being used to fix leaks and keep sinks from falling through the kitchen counter. That led to excessive leaking, mold and mildew, Rhee said.

Mayor Wright Public Housing

A hole in a bathroom at Mayor Wright public housing in 2013.

Courtesy of plaintiffs

The Mayor Wright lawsuit was the second complaint that the Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice and Alston, Hunt, Floyd & Ing filed against the state to mandate improvements. They previously sued the state regarding substandard living conditions at Kuhio Park Terrace and Kuhio Homes. The lawsuit resulted in a $985,000 settlement with the state and the private management company for over 700 units.

While he was pleased with the Mayor Wright settlement, Victor Geminiani, director of the Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice, expressed concern about the apparent trend of underfunding public housing repairs.

Civil Beat reported in February that Gov. David Ige cut the Hawaii Public Housing Authority’s budget request from $180 million to $5 million.

Geminiani said that $5 million is the same amount that the Legislature was budgeting to fund repairs back in 2007, when the Appleseed Center first sued the state for failing to maintain Kuhio Park Terrace and Kuhio Homes.

Screen-Shot-2015-03-10-at-3.41.47-PM

Makeshift renovations led to this sink being held up by plywood in this August 2013 photo inside a unit at the Mayor Wright public housing project.

Courtesy of plaintiffs

According to the Hawaii Public Housing Authority, the immediate repair and maintenance backlog for public housing projects is $275 million. Over 10 years, that’s projected to exceed $820 million.

On Tuesday, the state Senate passed Senate Bill 477, which provides funding for upgrading public housing projects.

But the bill doesn’t specify an amount. While the Senate housing committee agreed to set aside $90 million to help fund an immediate repair and maintenance backlog of $275 million, Sen. Jill Tokuda from the Ways and Means Committee removed the appropriation amount before sending the bill to the House.

That means that even if the measure passes the House, the Legislature won’t decide until its final weeks how much money — if any — to set aside.

“We’re really worried that there’s going to be a significant slippage (in funding public housing) now that this case is resolved,” Geminiani said. He said one of the reasons that the Appleseed Center brought the second case was to remind the state of its obligation as a landlord to ensure safe and healthy living conditions.

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