When most people think about the Hawaiian Homelands, the image of a long waiting list of 29,000 people comes to mind. Many of us personally know stories of Hawaiian beneficiaries who have waited their whole lives never to obtain a homestead. This image has persisted despite the fact that the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands (DHHL) has a constitutional responsibility to improve the lives of Native Hawaiians by administering lands for homesteads.
The term “land rich but cash poor” has characterized the Hawaiian Home Lands for nearly a century. The land has been there, but the funds for water, electricity, roads, and other infrastructure have not.
In a landmark move, 2,515 Hawaiian waitlisters took legal action against the State of Hawaiʻi in the case known as Kalima v. State of Hawaiʻi. The case exposed the state’s breach of its duties as trustees of the Hawaiian Home Lands Trust. The case led to a $328 million settlement, offering some solace to the affected beneficiaries. However, this financial redress is just a step, albeit a significant one, on the path to ensuring Hawaiians acquire homesteads.
Fortunately, there are also major efforts underway. 2022 brought a glimmer of hope as the Hawaiʻi State Legislature allocated a historic $600 million to DHHL. This funding aims to expedite the development of more homestead lots and essential infrastructure. It is a crucial step towards finally reducing the waiting list and fulfilling DHHL’s constitutional responsibility to house Hawaiians on homesteads.
DHHL has seized the opportunity, breaking ground on various projects across the Hawaiian Islands. Notable developments include Kaʻuluokahaʻi on Oʻahu, Puʻunani Homestead on Maui, Laʻiʻōpua Village IV on Hawaiʻi, Hanapēpē Phase II on Kauaʻi, and the Hoʻolehua Water System improvement project on Molokaʻi. These initiatives signify progress and are models for future work.
DHHL is also pursuing innovative solutions to house Hawaiians during the waiting period. For example, the Honolulu City Council has approved DHHL’s first rental housing project. This 23-story building in Mōʻiliʻili, slated to replace the Stadium-o-Drome bowling alley, will offer 278 affordable apartments exclusively to Native Hawaiians, providing a tangible solution to the housing crisis.
Also, one of my first responsibilities when I became an OHA Trustee was to lead a committee tasked with reviewing OHA’s annual $3 million commitment to DHHL. These funds were used to help DHHL pay down interest on revenue bonds that were used to finance infrastructure projects. The projects resulted in the development of nearly 500 homesteads for Hawaiian families. This partnership between OHA and DHHL is a positive start, but there are other possibilities worth exploring such as:
- Collaboration on developing more affordable rental housing projects that offer interim housing to beneficiaries awaiting homesteads.
- Pursuing the development and leasing of DHHL condos and apartments as an alternative form of homesteads.
- Fostering commercial development on select DHHL lots to generate revenue to fund additional homestead development projects.
Now is the time for cooperation between OHA and DHHL in the spirit of “e hana kākou.” Let’s work together to ensure that Hawaiian Home Lands become a symbol of empowerment, resilience, and justice for generations to come.