Hilda Urita moved into the Mayor Wright public housing project 47 years ago when she was 10. And with two disabled children to take care of, she’s a little anxious about being forced to move out, even temporarily.
She’s got company — all 1,500 or so residents of the Kalihi complex will be relocated at some point in the next few years as it’s redeveloped into high-rises that will provide both public housing and market-rate living units.
Community meetings about the redevelopment of Mayor Wright haven’t left Urita feeling assured that she will remain housed and close to her community during and after reconstruction.
“We’re having so much anxiety,” she said. “We don’t know what’s going on with this space. We keep asking and asking but there’s no answer.”
In collaboration with Hunt Cos., the authority plans to demolish all 36 two- and three-story residential buildings in phases, replacing them with two to three high-rises to increase the number of units from 364 to around 1,500.
The new development will include commercial spaces and recreational areas. The redeveloped complex will be privately managed, and offer units to residents earning a mix of incomes rather than only low-income tenants (people making 80 percent or less of the area median income).
According to federal law, the authority must ensure current tenants have reasonable accommodations, whether temporary or permanent, during reconstruction. This could be done a number of ways, each with its own complications.
“Some people are worried. Some people don’t believe it’s going to happen,” said Mayor Wright resident Andrew Nakoa Sr. The “majority of the people is more worried than excited.”
The Federal Uniform Act requires that the authority provide tenants with both technical and financial assistance in finding alternative housing. This assistance could include paying moving costs, utility hookup charges and even a meal stipend if the tenants are placed in a hotel, according to Jesse Wu from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
“We’re going to pay for the move and make sure they have equal accommodations,” said Hakim Ouansafi, executive director of the authority.
A family living in a three-bedroom unit, for instance, won’t end up in a studio apartment, he said.
Whatever plan is eventually adopted, it won’t be easy. About 47.2 percent of the tenants are under the age of 20 and two-thirds of the seniors are physically disabled, according to an environmental impact statement preparation notice.
To displace as few people as possible at any given time, demolition and reconstruction will likely be done in phases.
Mayor Wright resident Leonard Lestor said this is a good idea, but worries about living near a construction site, “with things flying and dust in the air.”
Ouansafi agrees this is a concern, and said he is confident about finding solutions.
One option the authority will likely utilize for relocation is handing out Section 8 vouchers. Tenants expressed interest in this option at redevelopment planning meetings, Ouansafi said.
There’s interest, but there is also anxiety.
Section 8 renters generally have a harder time finding housing than those who can pay their own way.
“Just because they give you a Section 8 voucher, that doesn’t mean you’re going to find housing,” Lestor said. “I kept telling my family and neighbors, once you get that voucher in your hand you better get ready to go and be first in line.”
Victor Geminiani, co-executive director of the nonprofit Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice, has little faith in the Section 8 option.
“You’re going to take these vulnerable families, these elderly families, disabled families, families with kids, with associations, with school associations and (send) them off to God knows where on a section 8?” he asked.
He’s worried tenants will end up far from their jobs, and children far from their schools.
Poor living conditions, including no hot water and pest infestations, led the Appleseed Center and the law firm Alston Hunt Floyd & Ing to file a lawsuit, settled in 2015 for $350,000, to compensate residents.
Another option is to place tenants at the top of the authority’s list of available units in one of its 43 other public housing complexes on Oahu. According to Ouansafi, about 40 to 50 units become available each month.
“We don’t anticipate many problems,” he said. “We certainly have the availabilities. Because nothing’s going to happen for a year and a half, we can plan ahead of schedule as other units become available.”
But tenants from different housing complexes don’t always get along. Gangs in the area are known to affiliate with certain complexes, causing tension and violence among residents of Kamehameha IV, Mayor Wright and The Towers at Kuhio Park — also known as KPT.
“You cannot move Mayor Wright into KPT,” Nakoa said. “They’re going to be punching bags over there.”
A Mayor Wright tenant for 32 years, Nakoa knows all too well about violence in his community. Twelve years ago, his son was fatally stabbed in front of Fuji Market just outside of the Mayor Wright complex.
Building temporary housing units for tenants during reconstruction is sometimes done by housing authorities in other states, but it’s not currently under consideration here.
HPHA has promised tenants the right to return to the complex post-redevelopment. Their rents will remain the same – tenants pay no more than 30 percent of their income on rent – as long as their income doesn’t change, Ouansafi said.
But anxious residents are “buying into rumors” they won’t be able to return, Lestor said.
There are no federal laws requiring the authority to ensure tenants the right to return once the complex is redeveloped, aside from requirements attached to certain HUD redevelopment grants – the Choice Neighborhood Initiative and the Hope IV program.
The authority has not yet received either of these grants for the Mayor Wright project.
All 364 of the units at Mayor Wright Homes are reserved for low-income tenants, those at 80 percent or less of the area median income. An individual earning $56,350 or less meets that criteria, but most Mayor Wright tenants have annual incomes closer to 30 percent of AMI or less.
This is because, due to federal guidelines, each year 40 percent of newly admitted families must qualify as extremely low-income. HUD defines “extremely low-income tenants” as those who make less than 30 percent of AMI, or $30,150 for a family of four in Honolulu.
The environmental impact statement preparation notice states that all 364 existing units would be replaced with units under the same affordability guidelines. Guidelines for the rest of the units have not been set.
They will likely be offered to tenants at a range of income levels, with rent prices adjusted based on those incomes.
“We won’t know until the financial model is created,” Ouansafi said.
Correction: An earlier version of this report stated City Council member Fukunaga had said the various price levels had been decided.
City Council member Carol Fukunaga said there has been discussion of the units being offered to applicants earning 80 percent of AMI, 120 percent of AMI and in some cases at market-rate.
Redeveloping public housing complexes into mixed-income complexes has become a common practice in cities across the United States, with mixed results. Theoretically, money collected from leasing market-rate units subsidizes the units rented at reduced rates.
Despite the authority’s commitment to replace all 364 units one-for-one, Geminiani has doubts about the promise to current tenants that they can return to Mayor Wright.
“I have not seen enough of a heartfelt, deep conviction about the wellbeing of these individuals,” he said. “They’re numbers to most people in the city and state.”
Rev. David Gierlach, former chair of the Hawaii Public Housing Authority’s board of directors, and rector of nearby St. Elizabeth Episcopal Church, expressed confidence in the authority’s ability to both relocate tenants and ensure their right to return.
“I think Hakim has been unquestionably supportive of that right,” Gierlach said. “Whether it’s legally required or not, they recognize that it’s a moral requirement and one Hakim has been unwavering about.”
Access to public housing is essential for current Mayor Wright tenants, 56.8 percent of whom live below poverty level, according to a 2014 census estimate.
Tenants, public housing advocates, and public officials all agree change is needed at Mayor Wright.
“Mayor Wright needs to come down, something new has to be built, folks just have to recognize that there’s going to be disruption,” Gierlach said. “Folks are going to grumble and folks are going to be afraid but Hakim and his staff are going to do their job to make this as painless as possible”
But the project’s complexity leaves plenty of kinks to iron out, and a lot of delicate livelihoods on the line.
“What they’re doing is they’re messing with our future,” Nakoa said. “Whatever they’re doing, that’s our future.”