In 1921, the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act was enacted by federal law to create the Hawaiian homestead program. More than 100 years later, there are some 29,000 beneficiaries on the waitlist for homestead lands. Many have been on the waitlist for decades, and too many have passed before receiving a homestead. Because of this, the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands (DHHL) has faced criticism for decades.
The delay has been blamed, primarily, on the fact that much of the land in DHHL’s inventory is currently unsuitable for development. Over 65,000 acres of DHHL’s 200,000 acres of land (statewide) lacks the infrastructure – including roads and water access – to build homes.
In 2022, state legislators and the governor committed an unprecedented $600 million via Act 279 to help develop Hawaiian homelands and, ultimately, to provide more housing for beneficiaries.
According to DHHL’s current strategic plan, a portion of the $600 million will be used to acquire property for water source development.
In addition to lot development projects, during the implementation of Act 279, DHHL will explore opportunities to acquire new lands with development characteristics (i.e., land with, or close to, existing infrastructure and suitable for residential use).
DHHL will also entertain the acquisition of property needed for water source development in areas where DHHL lands do not have sufficient water for homestead development.
“We’ve been acquiring more properties. Sixty lots have been acquired so far,” DHHL Director Kali Watson said. “And we’ve allocated $20 million for infrastructure on Oʻahu.”
The strategic plan notes that most of the funding will go to new homestead lot development. However, DHHL also plans to set aside roughly 10% of the funds for new and innovative programs identified by beneficiaries and/or housing stakeholders that could help individual waitlist applicants address barriers to homeownership.
“We’re using $22.3 million for rental and transitional housing,” Watson said. “It’s mostly geared towards kūpuna. We’re [also] going to provide counseling services to prepare them to become homestead homeowners. We’re currently looking at 20 sites.”
Watson said DHHL wants to provide beneficiaries options because some don’t meet income thresholds.
“We hope to give those with low incomes the option to buy,” he said.
Applicants who elect to participate in rental opportunities will remain on the waitlist and keep their waitlist rank-order. DHHL felt it was important to offer rental opportunities to its waitlist applicants, as it will offer more immediate housing security to these beneficiaries and may eventually enable waitlist applicants to become homeowners. Currently, DHHL only has plans for rentals on the island of Oʻahu.
The strategic plan was geared toward applicant preferences reflected in the 2020 Beneficiaries Study Applicant Report.
Seventy-six percent of those on DHHL’s waiting list prefer a lot with a single-family home or a vacant lot for a house; while 16% prefer to rent or rent-to-own a single-family home, duplex, apartment, or townhouse, with the option to buy in the future.