As the state grapples with a severe shortage of affordable housing and the highest rate of homelessness per capita in the country, some lawmakers want the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands to pitch in resources to help solve the pressing problems.
State Sen. Will Espero, chairman of the Senate Housing Committee, contends the department is “sitting on” $100 million that he envisions could end homelessness for thousands of Native Hawaiians. He and other lawmakers also say the department needs to develop affordable rental projects in addition to fulfilling its mission of awarding homesteads to eligible Native Hawaiians.
The remarks were made during a wide-ranging legislative briefing Thursday before the House and Senate committees on housing and
Hawaiian affairs, during which lawmakers questioned DHHL’s director on the
department’s efforts to produce more affordable housing. The hearing came on the heels of a Honolulu Star-Advertiser story that
reported DHHL built no new housing units last fiscal year and ended the year with
$29 million in unspent federal housing funds.
Congress nearly a century ago passed the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act, setting aside 203,000 acres in a land trust to benefit Native Hawaiians with at least
50 percent Hawaiian ancestry through long-term leases of $1 a year for land to live, farm or ranch on. The number of eligible beneficiaries awaiting residential leases
totals more than 22,000 individuals statewide, with roughly half of the waitlist applicants on Oahu.
Jobie Masagatani, director of the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands, which administers the trust, said the state Constitution lays out DHHL’s primary responsibilities as “development of home, agriculture, farm and ranch lots,” and financing loans for those lots.
“You’ll note that housing or shelter is not specifically carved out,” she told lawmakers. That, she said, differentiates DHHL from state agencies like the Hawaii Public Housing Authority and the Hawaii Housing Finance and Development Corp.
Masagatani said in general DHHL has transitioned from providing turnkey homes and returned to a previous practice of awarding land lots with infrastructure to allow beneficiaries to build their own homes. For the year that ended June 30, the department awarded 76 land leases for single-family homesteads in Upcountry Maui and Windward Oahu. “Our kuleana (responsibility) primarily, consistent with the constitutional purpose, is to prepare the land,” she said.
Rep. Kaniela Ing, chairman of the House Ocean, Marine Resources and Hawaiian Affairs Committee, said the department needs to produce more housing, noting that the state helps fund the
department’s operations. DHHL’s roughly $30 million annual operating budget comes from a combination of state general funds, federal and trust funds.
“If your focus is on lots, it’s not enough,” said Ing (D, South Maui). “Let’s try to focus more on housing.”
He added: “I know you’re tasked with cutting down the waitlist. We’re also facing this housing crisis and we want DHHL to be a part of (the solution). There’s a land side and there’s a housing side. I hear you saying that your focus isn’t really the housing, and you have to prioritize the waitlist. But I think there’s a way that we can change the conversation from ‘either/or’ to ‘both/and.’”
Espero (D, Ewa Beach-Iroquois Point) said the state needs an estimated 22,000 new housing units built on Oahu alone over the next
10 years to accommodate the projected population growth.
“No one agency, no one developer, not even the state of Hawaii can do it alone. It has to be a collaboration,” he said. “Obviously with the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands and the land availability, land is not an issue here. We have a lot of land all over the place.”
The bulk of the trust
land is on Hawaii island (117,550 acres, or 58 percent of land holdings), while less than 3 percent of trust land is on Oahu (7,495 acres). But the majority of the residential waitlist — 47 percent —
is for Oahu, with 10,386 applicants.
Masagatani said the department is looking at potential sites for “higher density” rental developments such as townhouses and condominiums along the rail line in the urban core. She said three DHHL sites are undergoing preliminary vetting: 20 leased industrial parcels totaling 14 acres near Shafter Flats in Moanalua; three parcels totaling 5 acres in Kapalama, including some of the land under the City Square Shopping Center; and the 2-acre site of the former Bowl-O-Drome bowling alley in Moiliili.
“If we do rentals, we want to make sure that there’s commercial income to subsidize the rents on a long-term, sustainable lease,” she said.
Espero questioned how many residential lots have been developed to date with the $600 million the state agreed to pay out over
20 years back in 1995 to settle claims against the state for mismanagement of trust lands. Masagatani said she didn’t have that information on hand but said there’s about $100 million in unspent settlement funds.
“You’ve got $100 million.
I wonder if that can solve the homeless problem for our Native Hawaiians today,”
Espero said. “There’s thousands of Native Hawaiians who are homeless and you’re sitting on $100 million.”
Hawaii’s homeless count topped 7,200 individuals in the state’s annual point-in-time survey conducted earlier this year. An estimated one-third of the homeless population is Native Hawaiian but it’s unclear how many meet the 50 percent threshold for Hawaiian home lands.
“Saying that you’re Native Hawaiian and then getting verification that you’re a beneficiary for home lands is two different things,”
She said after the hearing that helping get homeless people off the streets is beyond DHHL’s mission, scope and abilities. “This whole
focus on DHHL solving the homelessness issue, from a social program standpoint, we’re not equipped. We’re not the Department of Human Services,” she said. “Where I feel our contribution is No. 1, opening up the lands, and No. 2, trying to make it as affordable for our families as possible.”
She said DHHL, for example, has used federal housing funds to subsidize no-interest home loans with no down payment and monthly payments of $500 or less for beneficiaries.
Of the remaining settlement funds, Masagatani said the department is looking to establish an endowment to produce steady income in perpetuity. “It’s not like we’re just sitting on that money,” she said of the