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State lawmakers considering grass huts to help homeless

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    In this file photo, Sen. Suzanne Chun-Oakland looks at art pieces by her children at the State Capitol.


    This historic Robert Louis Stevenson grass hut was restored on the Salvation Army’s Waioli grounds in Manoa.

  • FTR - Sen. Suzanne Chun-Oakland in her office as art pieces done through the years by her children are seen on her door on Monday, March 24, 2014 at the State Capitol in downtown Honolulu. For upcoming feature on art at the State Capitol. (Honolulu Star-Advertiser/Jamm Aquino).

Hawaii lawmakers are considering a unique solution to the housing crisis: They want to make it possible for people to live in traditional Hawaiian grass huts.

Sen. Suzanne Chun Oakland is introducing a bill in the state Legislature’s upcoming session that would let officials set aside land to build Native Hawaiian thatched homes. She discussed that and other bills designed to alleviate homelessness at a meeting of the Housing and Homeless Task Force today.

“There is an interest in recapturing some of the traditional ways of living among our people here in Hawaii,” Chun Oakland said.

Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu, a cultural practitioner, approached the senator with the idea. Officials creating housing solutions should take into account the culture of the people they’re trying to help, including the fact that Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders have large extended families, Wong-Kalu said.

“We have a different culture other than what housing will allow,” Wong-Kalu said. “When you look at shelters for the houseless, it’s all based on the nuclear family, and that’s not our culture.”

Not everyone at the meeting was immediately on board with the proposal.

“This doesn’t make any sense,” said Shannon Wood, co-founder of the Windward Ahupuaa Alliance, a nonprofit organization that advocates for smart growth solutions. “This is 2016, not 1616.”

Wood asked whether there would be toilets in the huts, and Chun Oakland said the details haven’t been fully worked out.

Proponents say they don’t know of any people in Hawaii currently living in the traditional structures, called “hale,” but it is technically legal. They say traditional hale are cheaper and more environmentally friendly than other types of housing.

The Legislature approved a law in 2007 pushing the idea of traditional Hawaiian architecture as part of a package of solutions to the state’s housing and homelessness crisis. That bill required each of the state’s counties to come up with their own permitting process within a year. But only Maui County came up with a building code, and it’s for nonresidential structures.

Critics say living in traditional grass huts could pose safety hazards.

Chun Oakland and state Rep. Mark Hashem are planning to introduce additional bills or resolutions in the Senate and House to address homelessness. Among the proposals:

— Rental subsidy payments for programs like Section 8 would be exempted from paying the state general excise tax.

— To help identify potential land for housing development, all state agencies would submit a list of land holdings and the agencies’ plans for the parcels to the Legislature.

— A group would assess the housing needs of farm workers throughout the state.

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