The notorious Mayor Wright public housing facility isn’t nearly as bad as it used to be, but it is still far from perfect.

That became clear to me when residents of the 364-unit complex, whose formal name is Mayor Wright Homes, explained that they were somehow comforted because a recent stabbing took place on Pua Lane, the street outside, rather than inside the walls of the sprawling site.

That’s some small comfort.

But there are more palpable signs of improvement. The hot water works, except when all of the water is turned off in the name of conservation efforts. There is still violence, but people say there is less of it. Occupancy is up.

So I went down to the complex to look into another big concern. James Fitzpatrick, a resident organizer at Mayor Wright for a non-profit group that advocates for affordable housing, escorted me past a metal gate that blocked cars from entering the closed-off parking lot.

In the courtyard, I pulled out my camera and snapped a few pictures of a grassy yard area where several young girls were playing. A uniformed guard quickly appeared and politely asked me to follow him to an office where the supervisor of the housing project worked.

“No visitors,” supervisor Cynthia Yoshida said sternly.

I explained that I was a journalist. She didn’t care.

Minimal clarification came from the friendly guard who escorted me out the gate, to Liliha Street Thursday afternoon. “No pictures,” he said.

(Fitzpatrick told me that he has not ever been asked to leave.)

I had gone to the Mayor Wright complex to interview Kanani Nena about one of her fears about life in the projects.
After my banishment, Nena agreed to meet me at the neighboring Aldersgate United Methodist Church.

There, sitting on the church balcony, with a view over the large fence to the grass where young children played on the complex’s lawn, Nena explained that she has come to love living at Mayor Wright since she moved there two years ago.

The rent of just $361 for a three-bedroom apartment where she lives with her three children allows her to make ends meet on a fixed income that comes from Social Security. Such money wouldn’t get her far beyond the fences that protect Mayor Wright’s residents. And, to her, the complex is now safer and more quiet.

But Nena said that she fears being evicted along with her neighbors. Unlike most of the complex’s 1,000-plus residents — including immigrants from Micronesia, Vietnam, Tonga, Samoa and China — Nena attends community meetings at Mayor Wright, and she has learned of plans to renovate or knockdown and rebuild the facility in the coming years.

This makes her fret about having to temporarily move out, and worry that residents might not be allowed to return once the place is fixed up. And even if they are permitted to return, rent increases might make it impossible.

“It’s up in the air,” she said. “If they change things, I might have to pay a lot more than I am paying currently. That’s the problem.”

There is certainly plenty of competition for low-income rentals. Approximately 10,000 families on Oahu are awaiting public housing slots.

Dept. of Human Services

Hakim Ouansafi

Hakim Ouansafi, executive director of the Hawaii Public Housing Authority, assured Civil Beat Thursday that talk of mass evictions was just talk — “utterly and completely false,” as he put it.

It is also “premature,” he said, given that that any major overhaul of Mayor Wright is several years away. When plans are proposed, tenants and the community will play a central role in crafting them, he promised.

“I assure you, as I did tenants, Mayor Wright is a top priority for us,” said Ouansafi, who sent a letter to residents last week (reproduced below). “We are reviewing all properties that have potential (for improvement), and in no way will they (tenants) be kicked out. They are protected at the state and federal level.”

But Drew Astolfi, executive director of Faith Action for Community Equity, a faith-based nonprofit that advocates for housing rights, said the Federal Uniform Relocation Act does not guarantee public housing residents the right of return to their former units, it just ensures that they will receive help in finding new housing.

“I think under the surface there are two issues where residents have differences with the housing authority,” Astolfi said. “One is, for a resident who is looking at rehabilitation or demolition, how will relocation work? It’s a tight tenant market. The second is a resident’s right of return. They feel it is realistic they could lose housing, and this is something FACE is not sure about, either.”

Nena said she was not convinced by Ouansafi’s May 31 letter, and explained that some residents interpreted it as a form of intimidation. That may explain why, after residents aided by FACE planned a June 1 protest to air their grievances, only a few people showed up. “Just me and a girl,” Nena recalled. “That was the effect of the letter.”

Ouansafi’s Leadership Praised, But …

Despite her accusations of intimidation, Nena said good things about Ouansafi’s leadership.

She isn’t alone. In January 2012, Ouansafi replaced Denise Wise, who resigned as the housing authority’s executive director in October 2011 (for personal reasons). The Moroccan-born Oansafi, who lived in California before moving to Hawaii, has worked as an executive in Hawaii’s hotel industry and as a consultant on commercial and housing development projects.

Ouansafi — who is the ninth director at the housing authority in just 16 years — immediately made an impression by moving into the Mayor Wright complex and living there for three months.

The young Abercrombie Administration’s quick restoration of hot water in the facility’s 35 buildings in June 2011, after many years of hardship, sparked the impression that the government was finally responding to tenants’ needs.

Civil Beat

A Mayor Wright Homes unit.

Ouansafi built on that goodwill. “He hired new security. He put up a higher fence,” said Fitzpatrick, who is an organizer for FACE. “He gets things done.”

Astolfi also praised Ouansafi and said he is the person to lead the transformation of Mayor Wright, but he noted that there are disagreements on what the rehabilitation plan should look like.

FACE worked with tenants to put together a formal assessment that included photos and suggestions of things to repair, and then sent copies to lawmakers. (It is also reproduced below.)

The report paints a hopeful picture of tenants taking charge of their apartment, yet doesn’t pull punches when it describes problems there.

Consider this excerpt:

One resident said that when they were looking at their wall when they moved in they noticed mounds behind the paint. Not knowing what it was, they pressed it and cockroach eggs fell out of the wall. While it was taken care of right away, these problems are common.

The FACE report also warns against demolition and reconstruction of the facility which, the non-profit group warned, could lead to “permanent displacement” of tenants.

“If the Housing Authority chooses this route it will need to take tremendous care in managing the movement of residents to other locations,” the report states. “It would do well to avoid the model of Chicago and look hard at Seattle and San Francisco, where current residents were tracked while displaced and guaranteed the right of return when redevelopment was complete.”

Said Fitzpatrick: “The right of return is our biggest concern. We want something concrete on this. But it seems the state is worried it will scare away investors.”

Ouansafi also has his critics, like Gavin Thornton, deputy director of the nonprofit Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice. The center has sued to improve conditions at Mayor Wright and the Kuhio Park Terrace housing project.

“I devote my career to helping low-income folks, and (Mayor Wright tenants) have been living in those awful conditions for years,” said Thornton, who attended some of FACE’s meetings with tenants. “They are used to complaining and nothing happening. And when Hakim (Ouansafi) steps in and discourages people from speaking out on their rights…he holds the keys to their home, literally and figuratively. He is their landlord, he can evict them. You need cause, but tenants are in a really vulnerable situation, and they are afraid to speak out.”

A bad precedent and “huge potential”

The Reverend Bob Nakata, a former lawmaker who works with FACE, said miscommunication may be the cause of the current “dust up.”

“I’m not sure how it started, but it caught us by surprise,” he said, noting that the rehabilitation and renovation work at the Kuhio Park Terrace projects in Kalihi resulted in residents who were “not in good standing” not being permitted to return in some cases.

“And so, people in Kalihi all kind of know each other, so things may have gotten confused,” the reverend said. “People get scared when they hear about rehabilitation or whatever. Those fears may have driven them to call the housing authority. I heard the governor’s office was receiving calls too.”

Civil Beat

View from a church at the corner of Liliha and Vineyard.

Ouansafi said he is puzzled by the tenants’ fears, and he suggested that Astolfi may be trying to pressure the state — with the help of the media — to accept FACE’s plan for Mayor Wright.

“But it does not work that way,” he said. “When the time comes, we will be open to the input of everybody. We will hire a consultant, and then there will be a series of meetings with the entire community.”

Astolfi certainly knows how to reach out to the press, as he did for this article. But what he wants most is for tenants to be listened to. “What bothers me most is the needs assessment is getting blown off,” he said.

Ouansafi said he is committed to “always having a balance,” and he says his responsibility is to the best use of taxpayer monies.

“Mayor Wright sits on 20 acres right next to a planned rail stop, and their buildings are only three stories,” he said. “A mixed-use facility with greater density could house more people.”

Rep. Karl Rhoads, the state House Judiciary chairman whose district includes Mayor Wright, likes that approach. He introduced a resolution last session calling for a master plan on redeveloping Mayor Wright and other facilities.

“I think razing it is exactly the right thing to do, though I am not suggesting we do it all at the same time,” he said. “But we should increase the number of affordable units. There’s huge potential.”

About the Author