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DHHL rentals idea worth trying

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Alapaki Nahale-a has won unanimous support from the state Senate Hawaiian Affairs Committee as the latest nominee to head the state Department of Hawaiian Home Lands — backed by a crowd of homesteaders and others who think Nahale-a can bring fresh ideas to the job.

Here’s one idea that deserves exploration: The nominee wants to consider launching a rentals program and multifamily-unit housing as needed alternatives to DHHL’s conventional single-family residence development.

Preceding any of this, he pledged, would be development of a master plan, in consultation with beneficiaries of the Hawaiian Homes trust, developers and others who could be involved in the process.

That would be essential to success, because for all the noble intentions of this initiative, potential pitfalls lie in wait. DHHL must avoid repeating the mistakes of agencies associated with housing assistance in the past. Government has proven to be an inefficient landlord and is better as a partner that enables affordable rentals to be built, rather than building and managing them.

Nahale-a said after a Wednesday hearing that he is "open to all kinds of partnerships" to get this done. And he acknowledged that this major departure — providing units for rent rather than purchase — would present a challenge: The federal law that established the Hawaiian Homes trust was aimed at moving native Hawaiians into home ownership. By itself, enabling rentals does not fulfill the mission.

That’s why, he said, he has contemplated an approach using the rentals program as a kind of way station: temporary housing while the family prepares for home ownership. DHHL already runs programs helping beneficiaries improve their financial profile so they can qualify for a home loan; that outreach will have to intensify for the rental program to work. Renters will need to be carefully screened and new rules put in place to make sure they can capitalize on this help and become more self-sufficient.

In addition, apartments in multifamily buildings would be an easier reach for many beneficiaries who rent or ultimately seek home loans. Homes throughout the country include the full range of apartments and single-family dwellings; there’s no reason DHHL’s inventory shouldn’t incorporate the same mix.

Once he’s confirmed as DHHL director and chairman of the Hawaiian Homes Commission, Nahale-a can try his ideas on an agency that has progressed but still falls short of its goals. The land trust was created 90 years ago by federal law for Hawaiians of 50 percent or greater blood quantum, a response to numerous socioeconomic problems that beset Hawaiians following the U.S. overthrow of the monarchy and the annexation of the once-sovereign nation. Homeownership was seen as a way to help the native population thrive.

For many of the intervening decades, thousands languished on the waiting list to get a home, many people dying before reaping any benefit from the trust. In recent decades, development has accelerated due to improved revenue streams, but not fast enough to erase the waiting list.

There are regulatory snags and other problems to blame for this, but one issue is the homes being produced often are unaffordable to beneficiaries.

"If people don’t want or can’t afford the product you’re offering," Nahale-a said, "you need to change."

He’s right. A year from now, it will be instructive to see how far he’s progressed down that new path.

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