Photo: Sen. Brian Schatz
Sen. Brian Schatz formally assumed his new role as chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs on February 11. - Photo: U.S. Senate Photo Services

Hawaiʻi will receive at least $1.7 billion as part of the $900 billion COVID-19 relief package approved by Congress on December 27. The Department of Hawaiian Home Lands (DHHL) will manage $32.4 million of that money, including $30 million for broadband-related activities such as telehealth, tele-education, mapping and infrastructure. It will also oversee disbursements of an additional $2.4 million to help qualified applicants pay for rent, utilities, security deposits and other housing-related expenses incurred because of the pandemic.

As a member of the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee, Sen. Brian Schatz played a key role in securing those funds. For his presentation to committee leaders, his staff identified areas of need in Hawaiʻi by meeting with, among others, state legislators and representatives from Gov. David Ige’s office, OHA, DHHL, the Department of Education, the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism and the Pacific Basin Telehealth Resource Center.

“Families are all trying to live, work, and distance learn from home, so staying connected to the internet is critical,” Schatz said. “This new money will help DHHL implement new programs that will help pay for internet services or devices, so that Native Hawaiian families that need it most can get online from home and stay safe.”

According to William Ailā, chairman of the Hawaiian Homes Commission, the broadband monies will be coming through the U.S. Department of Commerce. At press time, DHHL was awaiting specific instructions from that department, so it can design and implement an appropriate plan.

Meanwhile, DHHL has received $2.4 million for its COVID-19 Emergency Rental Assistance Program ( and has partnered with the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement (CNHA) to administer it. Those who meet the criteria can receive assistance for up to 12 months and possibly a three-month extension (granted on a case-by-case basis).

CNHA is accepting applications based on the following criteria (proper documentation is required). Applicants must be:

  • On DHHL’s waiting list for a homestead lot
  • A renter in Hawaiʻi
  • At least 18 years old
  • Unemployed for more than 90 days, had a reduction in household income and/or is homeless or in an unstable housing situation
  • And have income less than 80 percent of Hawaiʻi’s median annual household income

“We’re still in uncertain times, with many people in our community facing financial challenges and other hardships,” Ailā said. “DHHL is working diligently to ensure they’re able to keep a roof over their heads through prudent use of the federal funds.”

Hawaiʻi might also be able to obtain a portion of an additional $25 million, which the latest COVID-19 relief bill has designated for the Community Development Financial Institutions Fund (CDFI). These funds will expand CDFI’s grant, lending and investment capabilities to help residents, small businesses and nonprofit organizations in disadvantaged communities with primarily American Indian, Native Hawaiian and Alaska Native populations, thus revitalizing and generating economic growth there. Among other benefits, recipients of CDFI assistance can start businesses, finance their first homes, and launch new programs and build new facilities at schools, health centers and community centers.

On a related note, on February 11, Schatz was named chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, which studies the unique challenges of Native Peoples and proposes legislation to address them. Senator Schatz met with President Biden, who has committed more than $28 billion in health and economic relief for Native Peoples in his American Rescue Plan.

“As the new chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, my job is to deliver federal funding to Native communities,” Schatz said. “We are already working on the next relief package, so we expect more help in the coming months.”

Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi has written 12 books and countless newspaper, magazine and website articles about Hawaiʻi’s history, culture, food and lifestyle.