The Hawaiian Homes appointee says renting first could reduce the wait list for families
POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Feb 2, 2011
Alapaki Nahale-a, Gov. Neil Abercrombie's nominee for Hawaiian Homes Commission chairman, says there needs to be strong emphasis on putting Hawaiians in homes, even if they do not have a deed saying they own the property.
"I'd like us to put a lot of effort towards offering a different house model, and I don't mean design," Nahale-a, who is also acting director of the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands, said. "The department needs to work harder to meet our beneficiaries where they're at. We've done a great job at producing affordable models, but it's still servicing only a certain percentage of our wait list." Others on the list for decades could be reached if an "affordable option" was available, he said.
One possibility might be affordable rentals, he said. That is a sharp departure from the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands' traditional goal of issuing leases to as many native Hawaiian families as possible — so long as they could afford them and qualify for a loan.
Nahale-a, whose nomination is before the Senate Hawaiian Affairs Committee at 2:45 p.m. today, said the financial inability for beneficiaries to qualify for home loans has been a major detriment.
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"It's a real problem that a lot of our families on the wait list are not financially qualified to get a loan," he said.
The Lingle administration took steps to address that through several programs designed to prepare beneficiaries for homeownership through homebuyer education, job training and other initiatives.
Nahale-a, a Hawaiian Homes Commission member the last two years, applauded the programs and said they should continue.
But he also feels it is time to do even more to address the dilemma with a rental component. "What we know is we're no longer hitting those people who've been on the wait list for decades," he said.
Exactly how many people would benefit from a rent-first program, or even what shape such a program would take — including whether such facilities would be placed on DHHL or other lands — is still unclear, he said.
"It's a concept," he said, noting that he still needs to explore the wait list further to determine more closely where the needs are.
"Hopefully after three to five years, they both would have created good credit rating, and also ideally we'd have some down payment assistance for the kinds of projects we're currently building."
A rental, or "interim home," component is a concept strongly endorsed by Micah Kane, who served as DHHL chairman for most of the Lingle administration.
"The department has shown it can develop efficiently in the single-home market, and I think it's shown we've exhausted, on some islands, the single-home demand," Kane said. "Right now it's about trying to relieve families from rental market rates."
Kane, now a Kamehameha Schools trustee, said he envisions partnerships with the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, the counties and others.
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DHHL "would have delved into rentals earlier ... but the challenge is it doesn't get you another lease and that's always been the public measurement of success," Kane said. Simply adding leases "is not a good barometer of success, not right now. The challenge is not developing more units, the challenge is getting more families prepared."
Several noted that they cannot recall the last DHHL chairman who came from the neighbor islands.
Born in Keaukaha and raised in Panaewa, both Hilo homestead communities, Nahale-a went back to East Hawaii where he ran a Hawaiian charter school, and later served as executive director of the Hawaii Charter Schools Network while his family maintained a home in Pepeekeo.
Neighbor island beneficiaries have different needs often unique to their communities and certainly different from those on Oahu, he said. "In general, there are often more economic challengers, and the job market is tighter." There is also a greater tendency to be self-sustaining and therefore a greater demand for agricultural lots. "The department really needs to recommit to its ag program," he said.
Robin Danner, president and chief executive of the nonprofit Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement, said Nahale-a's previous job stops are a strength.
"He has real-world experience in managing a public corporation and the day-to-day challenges of finance, affecting real people, and an ultimate constituency of our greatest asset, our keiki," she said, referring to his charter school background.
Like Kane, Danner believes it is time to shift DHHL's focus from notching leases. "Anyone can issue leases to land you can't get to, or doesn't have infrastructure," she said. "An eighth-grader with a half a billion dollars given to him can get a few subdivisions built."
The Native Hawaiian Legal Corp. has sued DHHL several times claiming the state has shirked its responsibility to provide funding from its general fund for the agency as specified in the state Constitution, the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act and elsewhere.
Last month the state appeals court reinstated one of those lawsuits that had been filed by six native Hawaiians.
Nahale-a declined to comment on the specifics of the ongoing litigation but said "the department is continuing to evaluate how it should proceed in light of the decision, and is fully committed to continuing its efforts to determine how the department and the state of Hawaii should best fulfill the mission of the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act."
One of the key points of the reinstated lawsuit was that DHHL leased homestead land to a private developer for a hotel in Kona.
Asked generally about DHHL's policy of offering commercial leases to non-Hawaiians to raise revenues, Nahale-a said he supports it. "Especially given the state's current economic condition, generating revenue through commercial leasing is the key to DHHL's ability to offer homesteading opportunities," he said.
Moses Haia III, executive director for the Native Hawaiian Legal Corp., said ensuring long-term funding from the state is DHHL's No. 1 priority.
Nahale-a was a member of the NHLC's board.
"Given his deep commitment to bettering the conditions of all Hawaiians, I am confident that he will work diligently to carry out the purposes of the Hawaiian Homes Act," Haia said. "His success, however, will be measured by the level and extent of support he receives from the state."