State Sen. Suzanne Chun Oakland wants to tap “the wisdom of the Hawaiian people” to come up with environmentally friendly and low-cost ways to house some of Hawaii’s homeless, possibly in rural, agricultural areas.
As the islands deal with the highest per capita rate of homelessness in the country, the idea to borrow from traditional island structures called kau hale came from a community member who serves on the informal Housing and Homeless Task Force, which has been meeting monthly for five years and has helped develop housing and homeless legislation each year, said Chun Oakland (D, Downtown-Nuuanu-Liliha) on Tuesday.
“The idea is to really look at or use the wisdom of the Hawaiian people,” she said. “I mean, they built beautiful homes in the past, very eco-friendly. … I think it would add a lot of charm back into our community. But the main thing is that there are materials here that you can use for free; there is no cost except you building it. So, it’s having the Hawaiian traditional expertise to kind of provide guidance.”
In media reports Monday, Chun Oakland was quoted as saying she wanted to permit construction of “grass shacks” — a term she did not use and considers “demeaning” to Hawaii’s host culture.
Instead, Chun Oakland told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that she is advocating for construction of a “traditional Hawaiian hale.”
“It’s a home that Hawaiian people were building for many generations,” she said. “You want something that’s beautiful. I don’t know what people are thinking when they say ‘grass shacks,’ so to describe it that way may connote more negativity than what we’re envisioning, which is actually a beautiful, charming, traditional Hawaiian home.”
A bill that might be introduced this legislative session would be “permissive,” Chun Oakland said. “It would say that the state or county may permit traditional hale to be built or constructed. … It is something I think we have to talk about and see where it would be appropriate.”
Chun Oakland said she has been talking about the concept with the state Department of Hawaiian Home Lands for about three years.
In a statement Tuesday she said the cultural importance of “traditional Hawaiian hale … should not be diminished by referring to it as a ‘thatched hut’ or ‘grass shack.’ This concept as a housing solution is being discussed, may result in legislation and is part of a large array of proposals being considered for this legislative session. … Just as the (Housing and Homeless) task force represents a wide range of business, nonprofit, government, social services and faith-based advocates for housing and homelessness, our thought process should also be broad and out-of-the-box in order to develop solutions to address the issue of housing as well as assist those who need help.”
The idea to allow construction that borrows from the past to help alleviate a modern problem received tentative support from some tourism officials.
Rick Egged, president of the Waikiki Improvement Association, said Tuesday, “As a community we are extremely short of housing. We have a huge housing deficiency. If Sen. Chun Oakland is trying to get creative to address that deficiency, whatever she proposes should be reviewed and given any credence it merits, rather than dismissed out of hand.”
In a statement, Mufi Hannemann, president and CEO of the Hawaii Lodging &Tourism Association, acknowledged “the cultural sensitivity and rationale for proposing alternative housing solutions for the homeless; it’s certainly not a traditional, mainstream idea. For this specific proposal to work, the housing will have to fit its environment, be acceptable to the community, have the necessary utilities, sanitation and safety measures in place and respect the dignity of the people who’ll live there — certainly a daunting challenge.”
But Hannemann said, “From a tourism perspective, it may reinforce a misperception and stereotype held by some that people in Hawaii only live in grass shacks.”