Sophia Sanchez, 53, is a mother and a grandmother.

She stands in the doorway of her daughter’s home at the Mayor Wright public housing complex, simultaneously propping the screen open while corralling her three grandchildren with her feet as they wobble and charge towards the sunlight.

The doorway leads into a modest but cozy apartment. Pacifiers sit on the kitchen counter. Pictures and notes hang from the refrigerator door. A fourth child sleeps on the couch, cocooned with a baby-blue blanket patterned with small pink teddy bears. There’s a poi dog wandering around the room, not sure yet if the children are friends or foes.

By all accounts, the scene is a pleasant one. In an area where one resident told me to be careful about which doors I knock on – “some of them grumpy,” she said – the idea of a grandmother tending to her grandchildren is a welcome sight.

And yet, what you don’t see from this picture is that Sanchez has to cope daily with the lack of what most in the United States would consider a fundamental necessity — hot water. For six years, or even longer, many in the complex haven’t had a regular supply of hot water.

If that happened in a private apartment, it would likely be a violation of the lease and the tenant could take legal action — and withhold rent. At Mayor Wright Homes, the state is the landlord and the tenants appear to have few, if any options. Their plight could become a test for new Gov. Neil Abercrombie and the Legislature. Abercrombie promised during the campaign to tap into federal funds more adroitly than his predecessor, Linda Lingle.

Tenants Have Few Options

Some tenants have already hit the street outside the Capitol to draw attention to their situation. But the government’s failure to solve the problem — citing lack of funds — raises the question why the tenants don’t just go to court and force officials to fix it.

The problem with litigation is that time wouldn’t necessarily be on the tenants’ side.

In 2008, the Lawyers for Equal Justice filed a lawsuit on behalf of Kuhio Park Terrace tenants – another public housing complex.

A press release from the group said, “The federal suit charges that the unsafe and unsanitary conditions at the projects violate the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Rehabilitation Act, and the Fair Housing Act.”

Some have argued that Mayor Wright could file a similar lawsuit since a lack of hot water can create unsanitary conditions.

In the Kuhio Part Terrace case, Lawyers for Equal Justice argued that there was a total failure of basic sanitation, several fire code violations, exposed raw sewage and unsafe elevators. The group said that residents should not have to pay portions of their rent – and in fact, should be reimbursed by the state – for money that went towards any of the flawed areas.

The defendants in the case included the Public Housing Authority and the state of Hawaii.

The problem is that two years later, even though residents didn’t lose, they’re still waiting for real results.

The state argued that Kuhio was a federally-subsidized project, so Hawaii was not responsible for any legal requirements because federal law supersedes state law. The court didn’t approve the state’s motion to dismiss the case and the parties settled out of court.

But tenants now wait on further legal proceedings before the state fixes the problems.

Mayor Wright residents would likely face the same uphill battle if they choose to fight in court.

“What they can do,” said Victor Geminiani, executive director of Lawyers for Equal Justice, “is legislative advocacy. What they can do is file a lawsuit. What they can do, obviously, is do what they’ve been doing – picketing and (increasing the) public visibility rate.”

As it stand now, residents of Mayor Wright seem to have two options: One, they wait on the public housing authority to petition the Legislature for the $600,000 needed to install temporary heaters; or two, they file a lawsuit that could potentially stretch out for years with no guarantee of change.

Water Not Only Worry

Sanchez, taking care of her grandchildren, just wants the problem to be fixed.

For the past six years, she says, there has been no hot water running from the taps at Mayor Wright – at least not in her daughter’s home.

“We have to boil our water just to bathe the babies,” Sanchez said. “It’s every single day. Some days, it hard for me to do it myself, you know, so the kids don’t bathe… I don’t think it’s fair for my daughter.”

Sanchez said that on the few days they do get hot water from the tap, “you gotta use it right away. By the time the second person gets in the water, it’s gone. It’s practically every day. You’re lucky if you get it.”

Living a few doors away from Sanchez, Pete Fatu, 20, reports the same situation.

“It’s been (going on) a long time, since I’ve lived here,” Fatu said. He’s lived at Mayor Wright for 15 years, since 1995. “The hot water only works when other people don’t shower. So you have to shower in the morning.”

Fatu said the water goes “off and on” every day, throughout the day. “I got used to the cold water.”

But at 20, Fatu is less prone to the problems that having no hot water can create. His grandmother, he says, isn’t so adaptable.

“My grandma needs hot water,” Fatu said. “The cold water makes her sick.”

Fatu lives with his mother, grandmother and an uncle, who is paralyzed from the waste down and requires the help of family to perform daily tasks.

Not being able to count on a warm shower is just one more item on Fatu’s list of worries.

Housing Authority Acknowledges Responsibility

And while some residents at Mayor Wright told Civil Beat they only had very occasional issues with temperature, the Hawaii Public Housing Authority says that none of them should.

“We think it’s our responsibility to provide hot water, no question about it,” said Alan Sarhan, a planner with the housing authority.

The problem, he said, is that there’s no money to make that responsibility a reality.

In order to overhaul the solar heating system installed at Mayor Wright in 1992, costs to the state would be upwards of $7 million, Sarhan said. Yet Hawaii’s total budget for renovations and repairs to public housing is only $12 million.

Sarhan says that since Mayor Wright has only 370 of Hawaii’s 5,300 public housing units, the authority can’t rationalize spending such a disproportionate amount on one complex. Especially when hot water is just one of the state’s many public housing issues.

“If we took $7 million out of our annual $12 million just for the hot water at Mayor Wright, that would be more than half of our entire renovations and repair budget for just that one project,” Sarhan said. “And we have some serious problems that we need to address all over the state with public housing.”

He told Civil Beat that among the state’s problems were leaky roofs, ADA accessibility issues, sewer repairs and cesspools.

“A whole bunch of things that are serious issues that we’re trying to address,” Sarhan said. “And so we just didn’t know how we could come up with the $7 million for the solar system.”

In a door-to-door survey of Mayor Wright by the housing authority, 30 percent of residents said they “sometimes or usually” had problems with hot water.

As a temporary solution – emphasis on temporary – the state is installing gas-fired “tankless systems” that are capable of heating up to six units at a time. So far, four such $14,000 systems have been installed, heating 24 units, and Sarhan says four more are on the way.

After that, Hawaii will have exhausted its local source for the tankless systems. To get more, it will have to ship the heaters from California.

To date, the authority has set aside $250,000 for the heating units. Sarhan said that the authority is petitioning the state Legislature for another $600,000 to install additional heaters in all of Mayor Wright’s buildings.

At the end of the day, it’s a dollars and cents issue – Mayor Wright is a federally funded housing project and the state public housing authority simply does not have the money to fix it.

Adding to financial problems is also the issue of confusion.

According to Sarhan, understanding why some residents at Mayor Wright have no hot water and others do, is more complicated than it appears.

“When apartment A says, ‘I never have a problem,’ when apartment B says, ‘I have a problem, not enough hot water,’ and apartment C says, ‘no problem,’ and they’re all on the same system, it’s difficult for us to
assess what the deal is,” Sarhan said.

Despite the confusion, Sarhan says the housing authority is doing everything in its power to address the situation. Mayor Wright is unique in that the evidence points to a problem, the people in charge admit there is a problem, they are doing what they can to solve the problem – but there still seem to be no answers.

So it looks like Sanchez will continue to need to boil water in order to bathe her grandchildren – at least for the foreseeable future.

(Below is a video of Mayor Wright public housing. You can see the solar panels and heating tanks fitted on top of the buildings.)