Denise Kaaa’s Oahu home, which she bought new 13 years ago, has flooded so many times since then that she stopped counting. Mold and cracks along interior walls and other surfaces of her three-bedroom structure are visible. And a bottom-floor addition built a decade ago has been rendered useless because of water damage, according to Kaaa.
Harold Vidinha and his wife, Wendy, have pulled so many pieces of glass from their Kauai yard that they no longer bother to remove other shards newly exposed during heavy rain. They’ve also found metal debris and chunks of tar popping through the dirt, detracting from the new home they moved into three years ago.
Even though the Kaaas and the Vidinhas live on separate islands, they have one key thing in common: Their leasehold dwellings sit on property owned by the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands.
Both homesteaders say they have endured multiple problems with their respective properties for about as long as they’ve lived there. They say DHHL, as the landowner, has not done nearly enough to resolve the issues.
Their experiences underscore what some homesteaders and advocates maintain has been a recurring problem with the agency.
All too often, they say, Native Hawaiian beneficiaries buy homes in DHHL projects only to encounter problems with their new residences. And DHHL, they add, falls far short of dealing with the flaws in a timely fashion. Sometimes, as in Kaaa’s case, the problems last years.
"I wonder whether (the agency) is just set up for failure," said Moanikeala Akaka, a former Office of Hawaiian Affairs trustee and editor of Aloha Aina Ea Ea, a Big Island newspaper that focuses on Native Hawaiian and other Hawaii issues. "Some of the incidents are just horrendous."
The current edition of Aloha Aina has a story, written by Akaka, that mentions several notorious examples, including the case of a Kauai homesteader who died in 1996 after he set fire to his home. Kahale Smith, who had been involved in a long-running battle with DHHL about the condition of his home, was being evicted the day he died in the blaze.
NOT ALL homesteaders, of course, have problems with their residences, which in most cases are purchased from developers who build the units under contract with DHHL.
"I’m blessed," said Tamar deFries, who along with her husband bought a three-bedroom home in the same 13-year-old Papakolea subdivision, Kalawahine Streamside, as Kaaa. "I’ve had no problems with my home."
She said many of her neighbors are happy with their residences as well.
"I don’t ever plan on leaving," deFries added.
Department spokesman Puni Chee said the vast majority of the 1,500 homes developed on a turnkey basis during the past decade on DHHL land have been problem-free.
Turnkey homes typically are built in bulk, such as in a subdivision, and the buyer doesn’t get involved in planning individual structures. The turnkey process generally is considered the fastest, most efficient way to produce housing — one reason DHHL has emphasized that approach in recent years.
More than 26,000 beneficiaries — those at least 50 percent Native Hawaiian — are on a DHHL wait list for homestead lots, and the majority want residential ones, fueling the push for turnkey projects during tight fiscal times.
"There is always a possibility that design and construction problems will arise with any project, whether homes are developed by a private developer, government or the homeowners themselves," Chee wrote in response to Honolulu Star-Advertiser questions.
When problems do arise, he added, "DHHL strives to investigate, review and work towards resolution."
Kaaa and Vidinha say they’re still waiting for a resolution.
For Kaaa and three other Kalawahine homeowners along Kapahu Street, the main road into the subdivision, problems related to water infiltration — especially during prolonged rainy periods — have persisted for years.
In November 2012, Deputy Attorney General Craig Iha, representing DHHL, sent a letter to the subdivision’s developer, Kamehameha Investment Corp., demanding that it correct alleged defects affecting the four Kapahu Street lots. All are on the downslope side of the street.
Iha said Kamehameha breached its development contract by failing to properly design or construct the four homes and the project’s infrastructure, including grading, compaction and fill work for the four lots.
"KIC’s breaches have resulted in numerous defective conditions at the lots and units," he wrote.
The four cases are before a mediator.
In a written statement to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, KIC Vice President Leslie Yim said, "Kamehameha Investment Corporation is attempting to reach resolution on the matters raised in the Nov. 2012 letter through mediation. Because the success of the mediation depends, in part, on the confidential nature of the process, KIC does not wish at this time to comment further on the process or progress of the mediation."
The alleged defects varied by lot, but they included mold and water damage, cracked drywall joints, house settling, twisted structural beams and stuck doors and windows, according to Iha’s letter.
Allen Bird, one of the four homeowners, said DHHL has handled the situation poorly, allowing the problems to persist for too long and the developer "to skate by without taking any real responsibility."
Bird said the problems have contributed to, among other things, a rock wall falling apart on his property, doors and windows shifting so they don’t close properly and cracks developing in the ceilings and walls on all three levels of his home.
"Every time it rains, it’s almost unbearable," Bird said.
Kaaa said the problems at her lot have meant she has been unable to refinance or sell her home because no lender will issue a mortgage under such conditions.
From a health and safety standpoint, the mold and settling problems are especially worrisome for her family, Kaaa added, particularly for her 101-year-old grandmother, Annie Ikuwa Kaaa.
"I don’t want her living under conditions like this," Kaaa said. "It’s ridiculous."
She has asked DHHL to compensate her for what she believes is an unsafe residence and to relocate her family to a Kapolei homestead.
Chee said his agency disputes Kaaa’s claims against DHHL but declined further comment, citing the confidential mediation efforts.
In a January 2013 letter to Kaaa, however, a DHHL administrator suggested that counterclaims could arise alleging that Kaaa took actions — presumably referring to the home renovations — that caused or contributed to her damage claims.
Kaaa said all the work was done according to city permit requirements.
A former president of the Kalawahine homeowners association, Kaaa said many structures in the 83-unit subdivision have water or settling problems.
But Chee said his agency is aware only of the four Kapahu Street complaints.
DHHL spent nearly $50,000 to hire an engineering firm to assess the water infiltration problem and has devoted hundreds of hours of staff time investigating the homeowners’ complaints and working with the developer to address them, Chee said.
Asked why the problems have taken so long to resolve, Chee said the current administration has taken steps to analyze the complaints and is participating in mediation to resolve the issues. He declined further comment, saying maintaining confidentiality would increase the chances of a resolution.
"I’ve been fighting DHHL from Day One," said Vidinha, who was the last of the homeowners to move into the 51-lot Kekaha subdivision on Kauai’s west side.
In addition to problems with his home, such as exposed wiring to his lights, Vidinha said his lot is littered with glass and metal debris below the surface, and tar chunks still seep from the ground on especially hot summer days.
The engineering firm AECOM, which DHHL hired to investigate the Kekaha ground issues, found metal and glass debris throughout the subdivision, and chunks of tar were seen on two parcels, according to its October report.
The rusted metal debris ranged in size from a few inches to more than 3 feet, while the glass pieces generally were less than 2 inches and appeared weathered, the AECOM report said. The larger tar chunks were more than 1 foot in diameter.
Residents told AECOM that they would find metal and glass debris within 2 feet of the ground surface.
"While the materials represent a physical hazard and nuisance to residents who may come into contact with them, it is unknown whether the soil or groundwater at the site has been affected by any associated chemicals at concentrations that represent a human or ecological health risk," the firm concluded.
The rural Kekaha property, owned by the state since at least 1965, had illegally been used by individuals as a dump site for abandoned cars and metal debris before being developed, the report noted. Residents told the consultants that the site also may have been used by a sugar mill for waste disposal.
Yet when the state completed an environmental assessment in 2003 before developing the subdivision, no significant problems were found.
Homesteaders, however, reported finding debris after moving in beginning several years ago. DHHL took their concerns seriously and authorized funding to analyze the problem, according to Chee.
Soil samples taken by the Department of Health revealed a tarry substance similar to asphalt but not toxic, Chee said.
Based on the initial report from AECOM, plans are in the works to sample the groundwater and soil, and if no toxic contaminants are found, DHHL will arrange cleanup work, he added.
Vidinha isn’t optimistic the agency will fix his problems any time soon. Bird, the Kalawahine homeowner, likewise is skeptical about a quick resolution in his neighborhood, given DHHL’s track record.
"We’re not anywhere close to resolving this," he lamented.