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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, August 18, 2008

High hopes and dashed dreams in Kalihi public housing areas

 •  Palolo Valley tenants seek bigger role

By Mary Vorsino
Advertiser Urban Honolulu Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Mayor Wright resident Fetu Kolio, 41, has been trying for years to drive out crime and improve security at the Kalihi public housing project. "We are hostages of our residences," he says.

JOAQUIN SIOPACK | Honolulu Advertiser

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Units at Mayor Wright Homes in Kalihi are plagued with maintenance problems, creating what many see as an eyesore in the community.

JEFF WIDENER | The Honolulu Advertiser

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The state' s troubled public housing system has been likened to "a house on fire." Officials have embarked on a plan to get the upper hand on problems that have smoldered for years. But this safety net for thousands is already in peril.

SUNDAY: Hawai'i's public housing system, its problems and how it got this way

TODAY: The effects go far beyond those who live in the projects

TOMORROW: Once the fire is out, what then? A look at possible solutions

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When Mayor Wright Homes opened in 1952, its 364 units embodied the dream of public housing not only because of what it was safe, modest homes for the poor but because of what it had replaced 15 acres of slums, home to 2,000.

Today, Mayor Wright in Kalihi embodies all the dreams dashed for public housing.

Many including some public housing tenants see it as an eyesore and a place with a reputation for crime. Its units are plagued with maintenance problems. Residents along Pua Lane, which butts up against the housing project, blame Mayor Wright for attracting drug deals to the street, for crime that spills into their properties and for the run-down look of the area.

Tenants who live within Mayor Wright say they fear for their safety every time they walk outside.

"I am so appreciative of having a home. But we are hostages of our residences," said Fetu Kolio, 41, who has lived at Mayor Wright since 2004.

But can one housing project any one housing project really be so bad for a neighborhood?

Though experts stress that the question is far from simple, they say the simple answer is "yes."

"When places are allowed to get so run down that it becomes this socially demoralizing and depressing place, then that certainly can encourage further deterioration and vandalism and create an overall environment of disrepair, both socially and physically," said Karen Umemoto, the director of community mobilization at the University of Hawai'i Asian and Pacific Islander Youth Violence Prevention Center, which has worked with Mayor Wright residents to push for changes.

Across the state, residents, advocates and community leaders are trying to assess the extent to which distressed public housing projects are negatively affecting communities and what can be done to help, especially as backlogged repairs mount and there are no signs the situation will improve soon.

Some have warned that deteriorating projects attract crime. Others say they hurt business and home values. And still others point to the potential social effects of depressed projects on their tenants and neighbors, from less community involvement to fear over even going outside to patrol the grounds.

The debate has significant implications for communities islandwide, some of which have already taken up the issue of how to tackle what some contend are spillover effects from public housing.

For Kalihi residents, the issue is particularly central: The area is home to nine public housing projects, giving it the highest concentration of public housing in the state.

At the Kalihi-Palama Neighborhood Board monthly meeting, talk of crime around Mayor Wright Homes and other housing projects is almost always brought up.

"It's actually getting worse. A lot of people are afraid," said Cardy Fang, a member of the board who lives across from the project on Pua Lane.


Nationally, the extent to which public housing projects affect neighborhoods is hotly debated, largely because some advocates say developments are unduly blamed for community blight when they are often part of a larger problem, not necessarily the problem. Pointing the finger at public housing projects can also spur tensions in neighborhoods and stigmatize public housing residents.

Distressed public housing projects can also drive out higher-income residents and spur concentrations of poverty, degrading the overall look of neighborhoods, sometimes to such an extent that community pride is an impossibility.

Hawai'i Public Housing Authority officials have acknowledged that safety is an ongoing concern at several distressed public housing projects, including Mayor Wright and Kuhio Park Terrace, both of which have round-the-clock private security.

HPHA executive director Chad Taniguchi has suggested installing security cameras at some projects or adding to the security force. Taniguchi said, though there is still a lot of study needed to determine just how much distressed public housing developments contribute to social problems in communities, there is certainly a link.

"Whatever goes on in public housing affects the surrounding community," Taniguchi said.

For community members, the difficulty in trying to figure out the effects of public housing on communities is twofold: For one, finding statistics to back up suspected trends is nearly impossible because HPHA keeps few numbers to track crime over time at public housing projects; and, secondly, not everyone agrees about just how significant the impacts of public housing on communities are.

Statistics for police beats that include housing projects don't paint an accurate picture, many contend, because an increase in crime cannot necessarily be pinned on a public housing project. Police were not able to provide year-by-year numbers for crime at housing projects, but they were able to create a snapshot for crime at some public housing projects from January 2007 to June 2008.

During that period, police responded to 172 robberies, 115 sex assaults, 405 car thefts, 207 aggravated or "simple" assaults, and 1,186 thefts at nine public housing projects in urban Honolulu, including Kalaniuhia in Chinatown, Mayor Wright Homes and Kuhio Park Terrace in Kalihi, and Punchbowl Homes on Captain Cook Avenue. The greatest number of calls to police were for arguments (1,812 calls), nuisance complaints (2,725), and suspicious circumstances (3,848).

In the absence of good statistics, many are relying on anecdotes to help spur HPHA officials and legislators to invest more time and money into thinking about how distressed public housing projects are, in their estimation, bringing down neighborhoods. Tenants in Mayor Wright Homes, Kuhio Park Terrace, Palolo Valley Homes and other projects have all said they believe crime is on the rise.

Some fear for their safety.

"I'm aware of how scary it is to be a tenant in public housing," said Petina Rios, a resident at Wahiawa Terrace since 2002 and treasurer for Island Tenants on the Rise, a tenant advocacy group.

She said the biggest problems appear to be with gangs of youths who think projects are free game as places to do whatever they want without anyone stopping them. And to some extent they're right, argued Kolio, the Mayor Wright resident.

Kolio has been trying for years to drive out bad elements in Mayor Wright.

For his efforts, he said, he has been threatened regularly.

"We shouldn't have to put ourselves in harm's way to get attention," said Kolio, as he sat on his small lanai, cluttered with all the documents he has collected over the years in his crusade to improve security at Mayor Wright.

Kolio said part of the problem is that hired security guards at Mayor Wright can't do much more than call police if something occurs. And, he added, it appears they are as scared of the wrongdoers as everyone else is. The guards staff the entrance gate to Mayor Wright and patrol the premises.


Crime is nothing new to Mayor Wright.

In the late 1990s, police officers were stationed at the project after Mayor Wright became the first Weed and Seed site in the Islands. The program, which attempts to target crime and "seed" community involvement, got wide praise from residents. The crime rate in the area dropped, tenants said they felt safe and Mayor Wright's reputation as a haven for drugs and delinquency dropped off somewhat.

But in 2003, Weed and Seed officers shifted focus to Kalihi Valley.

And in 2005, residents say, troublemakers began returning.

For the last several years, the state Legislature has gotten involved in the issue, after tenants have gone to lawmakers pleading for help. Now, HPHA at least has a budget for security. It got $1.5 million in fiscal year 2008, and $1.9 million fiscal year 2009 from the state Legislature. Lawmakers have also taken up several bills to address crime at housing projects, and in the last session passed a measure to ban the consumption of alcohol in common areas, such as yards and stairwells, in public housing.

State Rep. Karl Rhoads, vice-chairman of the Human Services and Housing Committee, called Mayor Wright a "disaster" and said "security is problem No. 1." Though he contended the situation on Pua Lane has improved since the mid-1990s, when it was "an open drug market," he said crime within Mayor Wright has worsened as the physical state of the housing project continues to degrade.

"It's the ghetto effect," said Rhoads, whose district includes Kalihi-Palama. "In Mayor Wright Homes itself, it's just the wild, wild West. It spills out into the neighborhood. It's unsafe to be around."

Rhoads added that to some extent public housing as a whole has gotten a "bad rap."

And he said not all projects are hotbeds of crime. But he said part of the problem is the state's inability to keep troublemakers out of housing projects, even if they don't live there. And he said that shouldn't be such a tall order, considering that Kukui Gardens a private affordable housing complex right across the street from Mayor Wright has been able to do just that and is considered safe.

Sgt. John Kauwenaole, of Weed and Seed, said he recently formed a "rapid response team" with residents at Mayor Wright to target issues and root out criminals. "We're also working with community patrols outside Mayor Wright," he said, "and we go back to Mayor Wright so many days a month just to do visibility stuff."

Kauwenaole said most of the problems at Mayor Wright are started by teens and twentysomethings who drink and do drugs, then cause trouble in the project or in the community.

Tenants say they go as far as attacking passersby.

And they also say some of the wrongdoers are not only doing drugs, but dealing them.

Kauwenaole said part of the problem is that Mayor Wright has always had a reputation as a bad place, so criminal elements gravitate there, hoping for a safe haven. But he added that some of the crime fears at Mayor Wright are overstated, and said the surrounding community also sees its fair share.

Ken Harding, a member of the Kalihi-Palama Neighborhood Board who lives near KPT, said maintenance at public housing projects is a big part of the problem. And, he added, the state of public housing in Kalihi wouldn't be tolerated in other communities.

"The unsightliness of some projects is a major concern," he said. "If they can have a task force for potholes, why not for public housing?"

He and others added that the question over the extent to which deteriorating public housing damages neighborhoods begs another one for Kalihi: How much of Kalihi's reputation as a crime-ridden community is wrapped up in the fact that it has so many housing projects?

Umemoto, who is also a UH professor of urban and regional planning, said public housing has a powerful stigma and its reputation warranted or otherwise often spreads beyond its boundaries.

She said a major part of the problem is that tenants feel powerless and threatened, so they tend to insulate themselves and ignore suspicious people or blatant wrongdoing. She said the state needs to do a better job reaching out to tenants so they feel safe coming forward and know who to talk to if they see something going on at a housing development.

"Tenants would need some scope of power and some resources to make changes, and that's what seems to be missing in public housing," Umemoto said.

She added that some crime could be driven away with simple environmental changes.

For example, she said, if a playground were built at Mayor Wright, more parents and kids would come out during the day, giving wrongdoers less space and changing the feel of the housing complex from one where kids have no place to play to one where kids congregate in one place to play.


Like Mayor Wright, Palolo Valley Homes is a project in distress and one where residents say they're seeing more crime. The squatty, brown buildings in the housing development sit in the back of the valley, near homes, a school and a park.

Rachel Orange, chairwoman of the Palolo Neighborhood Board, said neighbors of the housing project often say the look of the development attracts crime.

"There's definitely a desire to see the project fixed up," Orange said.

On a recent afternoon, Gloria Davis sits in her tidy living room, full of family photos, at Palolo Valley Homes and remembers what the project was like three decades ago, when she first moved in. The 58-year-old, who raised three children at Palolo Valley Homes, said the community was quiet and the neighbors nice. Today, she said, crime is returning after a brief reprieve, and it's scaring her.

"Nothing has been done" to stop the bad elements from coming in, she said.

Ruth Silberstein, principal of Palolo Elementary School, also thinks crime in the project is increasing. Most of her students come from the project, so she hears about troubles at the development from them. She also hears it from parents, who come to her with their fears.

"It's starting to pick up again," said Silberstein, adding that the school teaches kids that any bad behavior they see in the projects is not acceptable in classrooms. Silberstein said on one Saturday night this summer, she dropped off some kids at the housing project after a chess tournament and she felt their trepidation at returning.

"There's fights going on in the dark," she said. "I feel for them."

In addition to the fears about crime, Silberstein said she believes the distressed state of public housing and its concentration of poverty also produce other social ills, from truancy to health problems to domestic violence. And she said many times she is as much an educator as a social worker for parents, who come to her to talk about disagreements with neighbors or financial worries.

Recently, with the help of a federal grant, the school joined forces with Kapi'olani Community College and Good Beginnings Alliance to offer more programs for students and parents, from a health fair that touches on the importance of dental hygiene and how to spot bed bugs and lice to a program designed to stress the importance of parental involvement in elementary school education.

Silberstein said many of her parents don't put education first "because survival is more important."

Reach Mary Vorsino at mvorsino@honoluluadvertiser.com.

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