OHA Must Do More to Solve the Hawaiian Home Lands Problem


Keli‘i Akina, Ph.D., Trustee, At-LargeOne of the greatest legacies left to the Hawaiian people consists of 200,000 acres set aside for the purpose of homesteading. Constituting the third largest land estate in Hawaii, the Hawaiian Home Lands Trust is central to the vision of Prince Kūhiō, who wanted Hawaiian families to own their own land.

The sad reality is that while the vast acreage of Hawaiian Home Lands Trust is more than sufficient to meet the housing needs of Hawaiians, there are several barriers to the fulfillment of Prince Kūhiō’s vision.

To Prince Kūhiō, the ability to own land and pass it on to one’s heirs was the basis of intergenerational wealth. Unfortunately, for many Hawaiians who have wanted their own homestead and even for many who have obtained a homestead lease, intergenerational wealth remains a distant dream.

27,000 eligible Hawaiians
are currently on the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands waiting list, and thousands have died while waiting on the list.

Most of us know people who have spent nearly a lifetime waiting to obtain a homestead. Sadly, by the time some applicants are called, many lack the income capacity to be able to take advantage of the offer.

Individuals and families seeking financing face a host of challenges. Banks will not give homestead lessees the best financing options, nor can lessees tap into the equity of the land their homes are sitting on.

Ironically, it was Prince Kūhiō’s original vision that Hawaiian homesteaders would be able to own their land in fee simple. He knew that intergenerational wealth was not built on leasehold land.

In addition to problems individuals face, the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands has struggled with a history of underfunding. This especially affects the ability to develop homes where costly infrastructure for water, electricity, sewage, and roads must often be built from scratch. This is why some have said that DHHL is land-rich, but cash-poor.

Proposed Solutions

Despite the challenges faced by DHHL in administering the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act, many potential solutions have been offered, some more feasible than others:

  • Lower costs: Create tiny homes which cost a fraction of conventional homes.
  • Build up: High-rise condominium buildings can house more people on less land.
  • Develop rent-to-own programs.
  • Go high-tech: Where there is little or no infrastructure, build “smart” homes.
  • Reform the lease provisions so leaseholders can borrow against the equity of the land, to pay for construction or renovation of their homes.

What can OHA do?

While administration of the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act is the kuleana of a separate government agency, the DHHL, bettering the conditions of native Hawaiians is the kuleana of OHA. That means that where Hawaiians are not getting the housing they need, OHA must be concerned. Not only is this notion common sense, it is also the law. HRS Chapter 10-3 tasks OHA with “assessing the policies and practices of other agencies impacting on native Hawaiians and Hawaiians, and conducting advocacy efforts for native Hawaiians and Hawaiians.”

Currently, OHA pays $3 million a year toward fulfilling a 30-year, $90 million commitment to DHHL to help finance infrastructure costs. Unfortunately, beyond this agreement, the two agencies have no formal process for working together, nor any regular consultation.

I believe OHA can find ways to impact the Hawaiian Home Lands waiting list. For this to happen, OHA will need to embrace development of the Hawaiian Home Lands as part of its kuleana to better the conditions of the Hawaiian people.

Trustee Akina welcomes your comments and feedback at TrusteeAkina@oha.org.