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Housing project residents file suits

Plaintiffs say major upgrades are needed at Mayor Wright Homes

By Rosemarie Bernardo

LAST UPDATED: 01:51 a.m. HST, Apr 22, 2011

Kapalama residents fed up with what they say is substandard public housing conditions filed class-action lawsuits in state and federal courts yesterday against the state for the alleged lack of repairs.

The Circuit Court suit was filed by residents of Mayor Wright Homes, alleging the Hawaii Public Housing Authority failed to provide safe and sanitary conditions. The suit filed in U.S. District Court claims the authority failed to meet standards under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Fair Housing Act.

Victor Geminiani, executive director of Lawyers for Equal Justice, who is representing the residents, said poor conditions at the housing project have been a long-standing problem.

"We're waiting for changes to be made," Gemi­ni­ani said yesterday at Mayor Wright Homes.

Residents have complained that unsanitary conditions, vermin infestation and overflowing Dumpsters exacerbate their health problems, such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, he said.

Also, the lack of ramps and a lower side to bathtubs makes accessibility difficult for disabled residents, Gemi­ni­ani said. The state is required by federal law to seek reasonable accommodations for residents, and "the state doesn't do that. The state ignores them," he said.

The residents have campaigned at the state Capitol over the lack of hot water that most have suffered through for about seven years, this year winning a promise of action from the governor. Many residents say they have been forced for years to boil water.

Disabled resident Frances Wong, who has lived at the project since 1970, has a difficult time entering the bathroom because her wheelchair is wider than the doorway. Wong, who is paralyzed on the left side of her body after a stroke three years ago, must depend on family members to get in and out of the bathtub, the state suit says.

Fetu Kolio, president of the Mayor Wright Homes Tenants Association, said residents are frustrated with the state's neglect. Contractors were hired and repairs are budgeted, yet there are no results, said Kolio.

There is a lack of urgency or importance because it is a low-income housing project, he added.

Infrequent extermination services have resulted in an infestation of rats, mice and roaches on the property. Unwanted odors waft through the air from overflowing Dumpsters, while feral cats tear plastic trash bags open, resulting in more trash strewn on the grounds, according to the state court suit.

Gangs, violence and drug activity increased due to inadequate security, said Kolio. The project's playground is covered with graffiti. Overgrown trees block lighting to the property at night.

"Parents are afraid to allow their children out after dark," the suit says.

Mayor Wright Homes, the state's second-largest public housing project, has about 364 units.

Nicholas Birck, housing planner with the public housing authority, declined comment on the suits, saying officials had not had a chance to review them.

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