Three-year-old Mayreen Miecho shivers and wraps a towel tightly around herself as she steps out of the shower in her public housing apartment, trying to recover from the frigid water.
She didn’t want to take a cold shower. She had no choice.
Only cold water streams from most showers and sink spigots at Mayor Wright public housing, a chilling daily reminder to its low-income residents that their basic need for hot water has been ignored by the government.
“It’s like ice. It’s unhealthy. Sometimes, the kids get sick if they shower with cold water,” said Gina Nikichiw-Spell as she helped watch Mayreen, her niece’s daughter, and a handful of other children. “The government shouldn’t focus on the high-class people. Be even to everybody.”
Living conditions inside the rundown, concrete, low-rise apartment housing project near downtown Honolulu haven’t changed much in years despite pleas from residents for their landlord — the state — to maintain its buildings like private owners would have to if their hot water systems broke down.
Instead, residents’ children take frigid showers before school, their dishes are hard to clean and the chance of illness increases as the government repeatedly fails to find money for repairs. “It gets me worked up. Doggone it, do I have to live with this?” asked Fetu Kolio, president of Mayor Wright’s tenant association. “Who doesn’t want a warm shower? … The issue has been here for years, and nothing’s been done about it.”
Hot water is considered an essential standard of living by federal and local authorities, and few residences across the country are lacking.
Nationwide, about 1 in 600 renter-occupied units, or 0.16 percent, don’t have piped hot water, according to an Associated Press analysis of 2009 Census data.
“It’s unacceptable that they don’t have hot water,” said Sheila Crowley, president of the Washington-based National Low Income Housing Coalition. “Just because poor people live there doesn’t mean that housing authorities or Congress or the administration should be allowed to get away with shortchanging the kinds of things that are needed.”
Residents at Mayor Wright, many of them migrants from Pacific nations like Micronesia, have been pushing the state government to make repairs since 2007, with limited results as lawmakers wrestle with persistent budget shortfalls.
The Hawaii Public Housing Authority spent about $95,000 to install tankless hot water on-demand systems for five of Mayor Wright’s 35 buildings last year, said Nicolas Birck, housing planner for the authority. A July survey by state Rep. Karl Rhoads (D, Chinatown-Downtown) found about 70 percent of 364 apartments lacked hot water.
But it will cost more than $3 million for additional hot water fixes, and another $3 million for a more permanent piping and plumbing overhaul.
“If we have the money, we’ll fix it. It’s an issue of not having the money,” said Birck, whose agency has requested funding from the state Legislature.
Unless the government pays up soon, Mayor Wright residents may file a lawsuit to force the issue, said Victor Geminiani of Lawyers for Equal Justice.
“It’s immoral in this country to maintain facilities that year after year don’t have hot water,” he said. “We’re not supposed to treat people this way.” Federal housing authorities require safe, decent and sanitary housing for families, and that includes providing hot water, said Donna White, spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
HUD officials this week urged the Hawaii Public Housing Authority to make the Mayor Wright hot water issue a priority, White said.
“Hot water is a safety issue in terms of being able to launder clothes, shower and clean,” White said.
HUD provides HPHA with $12 million annually for capital improvement projects statewide, but the state has a public housing repair backlog exceeding $350 million and growing, Birck said.
Mayor Wright’s hot water systems have been breaking down since 2002, when aging rooftop solar panels and backup systems began to fail. Residents sometimes boil water to compensate, but they say that raises electricity bills, takes time and isn’t safe.
Residents of the 50-year-old complex pay no more than 30 percent of their income for rent in public housing, which has a waiting list of about 7,000 people across the state.
Some are able to live rent-free if they don’t have any income after medical and disability deductions, but most have to pay some rent, Birck said.