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Questions linger ahead of DHHL nominee Kali Watson's confirmation hearing

Department of Hawaiian Homelands
State of Hawaiʻi

Gov. Josh Green's appointee to head the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands is up for a confirmation hearing Thursday before the Senate Hawaiian Affairs Committee.

Affordable housing developer Kali Watson's potential return to DHHL is receiving praise from the affordable housing industry, and concern from some in the Native Hawaiian community.

Watson spent three years as director of the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands in the mid-90s before launching his own affordable housing venture in 2000.

Since then, Watson’s Hawaiian Community Development Board completed 14 affordable housing projects, many in Native Hawaiian communities across the state.

Kali Watson DHHL .jpg
State of Hawaiʻi
Gov. Josh Green nominated Kali Watson for the position of director of the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands on Feb. 22, 2023. This comes after state senators voted against his initial nominee, former Honolulu City Councilmember Ikaika Anderson.

"Kali’s development experience in the private sector bringing that in and helping to reduce administrative backlogs at the department and work with the homebuilding industry…this is a great chance…to get more units out to the homesteaders," said Max Lindsey, a senior project manager at Mark Development.

Lindsey said the company has worked with Watson and HCDB on at least a handful of projects.

Jeff Gilbreath, the executive director of Hawaiʻi Community Lending, praised Watson’s openness to creative solutions like the "rent-with-option-to-purchase" project offered to Kapolei homesteaders.

"It was the first of its kind in Hawaiʻi and I think that’s the kind of creativity and innovation and leadership that the Department could really use at this time," Gilbreath said. "Especially as you see the $600M in funding now in their hands."

But Keaukaha Hawaiian homestead leader Patrick Kahawaiolaʻa said rent-to-own is not a solution.

"Rentals does not get people off the waitlist. Give the land out. I would rather you give the land right now even if no more infrastructure over there, and then we go work together to get the infrastructure," Kahawaiolaʻa said.

Kahawaiolaʻa may be in the minority among Hawaiian homes beneficiaries, many of whom support Watson's nomination. Waiohuli Hawaiian homestead leader Kekoa Enomoto, head of the Paʻupena Community Development Corporation, said Watson centers the beneficiary voice.

"I feel positive because Kali has done a beneficiary-driven project on Nanakuli home lands that involved Longʻs Drugs Store and some housing, and that's what my non-profit is all about beneficiary-driven homestead developments," Enomoto said.

But Healani Sonoda-Pale of the Ka Lāhui Hawaiʻi Political Action Committee is skeptical.

"Does he plan to treat the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands as his own kingdom where he will benefit his own non-profits and LLCs? I think that needs to be asked," Sonoda-Pale said.

Regardless of the outcome of Thursday's Senate Hawaiian Affairs Committee hearing, Watson’s nomination will go to the full Senate for approval.

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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