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Hawaiian Home Lands could get $600M from state budget surplus to develop long-term housing

Courtesy Department of Hawaiian Home Lands

An unprecedented budget surplus is prompting Hawaiʻi lawmakers to consider historic legislation to dedicate $600 million to long-term affordable housing for Native Hawaiians.

House Bill 2511 would create a special fund at the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands to help the agency move thousands of Hawaiian beneficiaries off the waitlist and onto homestead land.

Fifth-generation Hawaiian Homesteader and state Rep. Stacelynn Eli says growing up on Hawaiian Home Lands in Nānākuli has its benefits. Her family lived there since the 1930s.

"I've lived in Nānākuli on the homestead my whole life, and our tutu’s house is at the heart of our family. My tutu’s house is on Nānākuli Avenue in Nānākuli Valley. My mom and my grandmother were born in that house," Eli said. "Our family is so rooted there — all our, my memories. And I feel like everything that contributed to me being the leader that I am today came from my home and my family, but also the community I was raised up in. And that was a community full of kanaka."

Eli’s family is one of nearly 10,000 Native Hawaiian ‘ohana who have realized the benefits of the 1921 Hawaiian Homes Commission Act. The act set aside more than 200,000 acres for those with 50% or more Hawaiian blood. More than 28,000 Hawaiians are still waiting.

"Members, it is time to give the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands the resources it needs to fulfill its fiduciary duty," House Speaker Scott Saiki said, revealing the $600 million pledge on the opening day of the state Legislature.

He says the decision was made at the last minute following financial projections in early January of an unanticipated revenue boost. Saiki says DHHL was an immediate priority.

"Even without the surplus, we have attempted to provide funds to DHHL. What we had questions on in the past was being able to work with DHHL to plan projects. Because if there are plans, then we would be open to considering funding for those projects. What happened this year was kind of the reverse situation. We have the funds," Saiki said.

And now DHHL must develop its plans.

DHHL Deputy Director Tyler ʻIokepa Gomes said, "I think what's clear is there is a real commitment here to address the waitlist. So this $600 million could be used for anything from development of single-family homes, which is the traditional idea of what DHHL does. It could be used for infrastructure for undeveloped properties that maybe would be great for development, but for the fact that they don't yet have access to water or sewer. It could be used, perhaps to supplement our growing interest in doing rentals."

Gomes says the last time DHHL received $600 million was in a 1995 settlement with the state over the use of Hawaiian Home Lands without consent or compensation. That led to 4,000 homes over the last 27 years.

Representative Eli wants to see the agency use this money to directly benefit beneficiaries as soon as possible. She says the impact of this multi-million dollar infusion could help free up affordable housing inventory currently occupied by beneficiaries on the DHHL waitlist.

"This can help all of us and give opportunities not just to Native Hawaiians but other local families looking to have that opportunity to have a place to call home," Eli said.

House Bill 2511 and its companion Senate Bill 3359 moved through committees in both chambers Thursday. The Senate Hawaiian Affairs Committee voted unanimously to approve it. The House Committee on Judiciary and Hawaiian Affairs also voted to approve it.

The bills now await hearings before the House Finance Committee and the Senate Ways and Means Committee.

Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi is a general assignment reporter at Hawaiʻi Public Radio. Her commitment to her Native Hawaiian community and her fluency in ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi has led her to build a de facto ʻōiwi beat at the news station. Send your story ideas to her at khiraishi@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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