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Lack of hot water persists for years at public housing

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    Fetu Kolio, president of the Mayor Wright housing complex in Kapalama, lets the hot water tap in his bathroom run for a few minutes over his hand, showing it does not get hot enough to hurt.
    Solar panels sit atop Building 34 in the Mayor Wright housing complex, where some of the units have had problems with their hot water supply.

Dozens of residents at the Mayor Wright public housing complex in Kalihi continue to suffer from intermittent — and even nonexistent — hot water service, and housing officials say a permanent fix will be "a very long-term, expensive project."

Some residents have grown so accustomed to cold-water showers — and washing dirty dishes and diapers in cold water — that they can’t even remember a time when they received reliable hot water in their apartments.

So most residents didn’t even bother to register it as a problem when state Rep. Karl Rhoads checked on conditions at the 364-unit, 35-building complex.

But when Rhoads (D, Palama-Chinatown-Downtown) specifically asked about hot water service for a survey early this month, he was stunned by the reaction.

"I’ve knocked on every door, and they have never complained to me about it," said Rhoads, who has been visiting Mayor Wright Housing ever since he was elected to the Legislature in 2006. "When I actually asked them about it, then they were like, ‘No, we don’t have hot water all the time, and it’s been like that for years.’ Most people there have gotten so used to the problem that they didn’t even think to raise it as a problem."

Rhoads’ survey found that nearly 70 percent of Mayor Wright’s buildings had at least one tenant suffering some sort of hot water problem, even though Hawaii Public Housing Authority officials have been working on a temporary fix since 2007.

So far, officials have installed four, on-demand tankless water heaters in buildings with the worst hot water problems, said Alan Sarhan, chief planner for the Hawaii Public Housing Authority.

With each tank serving six units, the temporary fix has so far helped 24 of Mayor Wright’s 364 apartments.

Sarhan did not have an immediate estimate yesterday of the cost for the four tankless heaters. And no consultant has yet been hired to calculate the price tag to give the rest of the tenants temporary, reliable hot water.

"We’ll have to figure out where the worst problem is and allocate the money there," Sarhan said. "But the on-demand, tankless water heaters are not a permanent solution."

A permanent fix has roughly been calculated at $7 million and would require a major overhaul of each building’s pipes and plumbing systems, Sarhan said.

"If we were to replace all of the solar systems, it would be in the multimillion-dollar range," Sarhan said. "We don’t have an exact estimate because we don’t have all the planning on it."

Sarhan did not immediately know yesterday when the original solar heating system was installed and when problems began, but acknowledged that both the system and its backup are "very old and in very bad condition, there’s no question."

Fetu Taua Kolio, the 43-year-old president of Mayor Wright’s tenant association, tracks the problem back to eight of the 10 years he has lived there.

He can rely on hot water in his two-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment in Building 34 only between 1 and 2 p.m. every day, "but that’s not a normal time to take a shower," Kolio said.

He and his wife, Eleanor, take care of their 18-month-old grandson and 5-year-old nephew during the day, when there are plenty of dishes and laundry to be done.

"Once upon a time, we had hot water," Kolio said. "Then it just broke. They keep telling us it comes down to funding. And there’s no funding because it’s not a priority. So we just bear with the cold."

In his three-bedroom, one-bath apartment in Building 6, Ene Augafa, 63, has a different problem: constantly tepid water.

"It is very frustrating," Augafa said. "It’s been like this for years already, and they never do nothing. They always come back with, ‘No money, no money, no money to take care of it.’ Why did they even put it up there with no Plan B in case something happened? If I don’t pay my rent, they threaten me with eviction. But they don’t do their part and fix things."

Some residents, such as Nite Kristoph, receive hot water regularly, except on dark, rainy days.

"And even then at least it’s lukewarm," she said. "Our building doesn’t have the problems that other buildings have."

But Rhoads was still surprised at the scope of the lack of consistent hot water at Mayor Wright.

"I knew there have been problems for years," he said. "I just didn’t realize how many buildings were affected. In the morning when a lot of people take their showers, there’s simply no hot water. It’s not just that there’s no hot water. It’s that it’s really cold water."

He continues to prod housing authority officials to come up with detailed estimates to pay for a long-term solution and vowed to carry residents’ cause for regular, hot water.

"I’m willing to fight for the money at the Legislature, but I can’t figure out how much it’s going to cost on my own," Rhoads said. "There doesn’t appear to be a plan. If there’s no plan, there’s no way to know what it costs and no idea to know what I should ask for. This is so frustrating because it’s been going on for years."


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