The longtime public housing resident became politically active in an effort to restore pride and safety to the place he calls home
POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Oct 29, 2010
Fetu Kolio gets a reminder of why he committed to the job as president of his tenants association every time he turns on the faucet.
And he revels in his latest task: reminding other people about the maintenance failings at Mayor Wright Homes. The cheerless appearance of this low-income complex at the edge of Kalihi has become an emblem of the state's lax approach to upkeep of its public housing stock.
Lately, it's been the lack of hot water in about 70 percent of the project's 364 units that's put Kolio in the media spotlight. Officials say state budget cuts preclude the allotment of enough money to replace the water heating system at once, and so repairs are being staggered.
Kolio, 43, believes the problems persist through several state administrations because the real overhaul needs to happen among the managerial staff more than in Washington Place.
Various public-housing plagues -- crime, drugs, poor maintenance -- have been a constant feature of his life in this complex, where he first moved with his mother in 1985. Kolio, who works part-time as a ticket-taker and usher at Aloha Stadium when he's not babysitting his two step-grandchildren, has lived with his wife in his current apartment on Pua Lane since 2004.
Dissatisfaction with the previous association leaders drove him and a new crop of volunteers to run for office about a year ago, but Kolio's frustration with prevailing attitudes about public housing predates that move. He's expressed a newfound activism through election to the Kalihi-Palama Neighborhood Board.
And, although he gets along with the district police brass, he's found some officers less than responsive. He recalled making a police complaint about drugs in the area, and getting pushback from one of them.
"The comment was, 'Well, you like live here, this is what you gotta expect.' I said, 'What, harassed? Beaten? You expect me to get beaten?' He said, 'Eh, you like live here, that's what you gotta deal with.'
"Labeling public housing 'we're all gangs or criminals,' it's such a false statement. I'll be truthful: I'm sure that's the reality out there, because they hear so much crime and drugs and gangs. But there's a lot of us that want to change that image, that want to build a good reputation."
Question: What drove you to run for the tenants association presidency?
Answer: I just got tired of the people getting hurt, getting assaulted. And they were tenants, but being that there were language barriers -- whether they were Vietnamese, Chinese or Micronesians -- at first they couldn't identify who it was. ... So at the request of many tenants who came to me saying, "How can we do something?" that's when I made it perfectly clear. I told each of them, "This coming election, I'm going to run."
Q: How has the hot water situation been since you lived in your current apartment?
A: I'm sure when the system was built, the consistency was there. But ever since that, it never functioned as it was supposed to. I'll be honest: I was never proactive in it, it wasn't a concern. You just lived, to accept it as a norm. But you never thought, with a light bulb in your head, "Eh, I'm going to go look at my rental lease agreement and see." It was never like that ... until we met our representative. Karl Rhoads got elected in 2006, and that's when I sorta got really proactive. I started understanding to go in front of the legislators, whatever issue there was for public housing, whether it was crime and safety bills ... Karl started knocking on our doors and asking us, are there concerns we might have? A majority of the district knows Karl more than the handful of us here, because some people, they're not interested in politics, or they just don't have the knowledge. Which compared to me, I got that enthusiasm that if someone approaches me like a representative and tells me "Hey, you know, we can work on it." Then yes, I'm gonna learn. And that's when I started learning. Karl helped us with crime and safety issues, more funding for security services ... that's when I kinda like went, "Wow, that's how it works! You gotta communicate with the people that can do something."
Q: Why do you think it's been allowed to go this long?
A: To be fair, we've had a lot of administrations, different governors, different parties, and so it really puzzles me: Why has it gone this long?
Whether it's Republican or Democrat, I don't think it's that administration, I think as long as they continue having the same employees running the show. For example, if we're having the same manager for five administrations, why hasn't it reached anywhere? Because you guys are doing the same thing. You're having the same type of people who are doing nothing. And nothing means (pointing), "They won't know ... they won't know ... they won't know ... the community won't know, I'm just going to do it the way I like to do things." And I think they do a lot of things by their own discretion. It's not a priority, it's not important. They tend to think they're doing the finest job. I don't know how you can say "finest job" if we're still having "finest problems." To me I think it's still that old-boy-network thing, where "It's us, but don't worry about them, they're just low-lifes, low-income, less-educated people."
Q: Are you still active on the neighborhood board?
A: Yes. The neighborhood board is where I got to meet everybody. The good thing is, I made a lot of friends with everybody. I didn't go straight on the board. I became an audience first, for a year. I was a resident; whenever there was a portion for resident concerns, that's when I get up there. I addressed it to the fire (department), because I had fireworks issues; police, because I had a lot of gang activities, and drugs was on my street ... Whatever it was, I built a relationship with every single one of them.
A state worker told me after one meeting, "Hey, what do you do? Wouldn't you want to work for the state?" I just responded saying, "I'm just a poor man living in public housing." She said a very good comment: "You have a lot of community-type connection; you're a people kind of a guy." But I was just more concerned with learning and understanding. But today I serve on the board -- I volunteered. Hey, why not?
I have a good relationship with a (police) major, Maj. Char, he's sorta like the boss of the Kalihi station. Today he comes to my meeting here, he comes here because we still have continuous community crimes, robberies around our area, they are always seen running into our complex by witnesses. He trained me and several other tenants, the willing ones, the committed ones, for a citizens patrol. I have a Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday citizens patrol walk in here. Because as soon as 10 o'clock, it's a quiet time. Then that's when we find out if there are suspicious people on our property. I do it with the assistance of our security guards here; we all walk together. But Major, he covers the whole entire community ... he's put a task force together, plainclothes, they have been making arrests. But it's so sad. The state public housing (officials) here have not stepped up to the plate and walked with us.
Q: When did you start this neighborhood walk?
A: They trained us October 2009. There were two representatives from management at the training ... they told us they were going to be all-out supportive. Then I said, "I'm sure you can join us on our nightly walks at least once a month." They said yes. But till today, they have not come once. When something serious happens -- for example, Kalihi Valley, they just had their curfew, because they have continuous violence -- it's just a system that's so broken down, it's almost senseless to think that hope is coming soon. I'm one individual, I think myself, with the courage that I have, I think I am the hope. I'm sort of like grabbing the bull by the horn. And whether you're a bully tenant or whether you're a bully management, I'm going to say to the right people that needs to hear this. Those are the type of bullies we need to get out of my housing. I can imagine the same thing going on in other houses; I can only speak for mine. That's my whole determination.
Q: Do you feel a connection with the other communities where you've lived?
A: It's nothing like the passion I have now. Being a tenant, first of all, just having a place you can call home. That's the passion I have; it's all about giving back. There's so much problem in the community, with homelessness, single parents, the teenage foster problem. That's why I do this. ... It's only to help the systems that are broken, that are lacking. Public housing can be really a terrific place to be labeled. In reality, I think the community labels public housing as "problem people." An officer stated to me, "You guys all criminals." I've taken all my complaints to the Police Commission. I can provide all my documents, if you want to see it later.
Q: So your complaint was about the response you got, that it was hostile?
A: Yes, and in a five-year period, I made three. And I don't want to just single out the police. I just want to make sure that as an individual, I do not tolerate (that from) anybody.
Q: Do you think all the publicity about the problems will help, ultimately?
A: Most definitely. That's why I don't fear anything, because I have the passion. My passion is for the people here.