The Hawaii Circuit Court has approved the settlement of a class action lawsuit challenging unsafe and unsanitary conditions at the Mayor Wright Homes public housing project.

The lawsuit, which was brought on behalf of Mayor Wright tenants by the non-profit Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law & Economic Justice and co-counsel, Alston Hunt Floyd & Ing, resulted in dramatic improvements at the 364-unit apartment complex.

The lawsuit was filed in April 2011. At the time, most of the tenants at Mayor Wright did not have hot water. Residents said they were afraid to leave their homes due to problems with security and a spate of assaults and murders at the property. Leaks from a decaying plumbing systems caused mold problems throughout the project. Residents also complained of overflowing dumpsters; rat, roach and bed bug infestations; and shoddy repairs, if maintenance was performed at all.

“(The garbage bins) were all wide open day and night. They were not closed, they were just opened up all the time. There were rats and cats getting things from the garbage to the units where we were, because nobody cared to close the garbage,” said resident Kasner Alexander. “My disabled wife and my two kids, son and a daughter, were going to school. They’d have to take a shower before they go to school, but they took a shower with the cold water.”

“There’s a variety of very big issues that affected the units at Mayor Wright Homes. we’re talking about instances in which severe lack of maintenance resulted in what can only be described as gaping holes in portions of bathrooms and kitchens resulting in health-related issues such as excessive leaking that could result in mold and mildew as well as pest intrusion,” said John Rhee of Alston Hunt Floyd & Ing.

Some residents had kitchen sinks falling through deteriorating countertops “fixed” with duct tape. Others had gaping holes in their bathroom walls providing easy access by vermin intent on invading tenants’ apartments-holes that were left for months after maintenance staff attempted to fix plumbing problems, but failed to seal up the repairs.

In the years leading up to the filing of the lawsuit and even after, the property twice failed inspections by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, attorneys said.

In response to the lawsuit, the State of Hawaii invested over $4.5 million to bring conditions of the property up to an acceptable standard and, under the settlement agreement, continues to make critical repairs.

“After our lawsuit was brought, the state housing authority went through each of the units on a case-by-case basis trying to decide exactly what would be necessary to make the improvements and they were done from our perspective quite well,” said Hawaii Appleseed executive director Victor Geminiani.

The settlement also includes a $350,000 payment to compensate residents for years of enduring the decrepit conditions, and to cover a portion of the costs of the suit. Now, the State is evaluating plans to redevelop the property.

“This case pushed the State to live up to its responsibilities as a landlord,” said attorney Paul Alston. “Years of tenant complaints, reports in the media about problems at Mayor Wright, and poor results on federal inspections apparently were not enough. It took a court case to make things right, and we are pleased with how things have shaped up.”

While advocates for the tenants are happy with the results at the Mayor Wright project, they are concerned about the broader outlook for public housing tenants across the state.

According to Geminiani, “People need a safe, decent place to raise their families to break out of the generational cycle of poverty. We need to do better, or the long-term costs of this neglect is going to come back to haunt us.”