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Star Advertiser: Seeking progress on Department of Hawaiian Home Lands promise

July 20, 2021

Native Hawaiians this month marked the 100th anniversary of the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act, the federal legislation that established Hawaii’s homesteading program. Its first homesteader family moved into their new home about a year after the act’s creation.

The awarding of leases, unfortunately, thereafter slowed to a glacial pace. This was in part because the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands, the state agency administering the leases, had 203,000 acres in its original land-trust corpus but insufficient funds to develop homes on the land.

Awardees of a homestead lease must be of at least 50% Native Hawaiian blood; that hasn’t changed, but a proposal to allow more of a beneficiary’s family to qualify as successors on the lease deserves the support of Congress.

There is now legislation proposed by U.S. Rep. Kaiali‘i Kahele to give beneficiaries of the trust greater latitude in leaving their homestead to family members who are of at least 1/32nd Native Hawaiian ancestry. It’s a significant increase from the current minimum of 25% blood quantum for successors, and one for which Kahele needs to make a strong case.

He’ll be helped by the support of state lawmakers, who endorsed the idea in 2017, and of the Sovereign Council of Hawaiian Homestead Associations. Its leaders see the move as aligned with the original vision of Prince Kuhio, Hawaii’s nonvoting delegate to Congress who championed the 1921 federal law.

The centennial is a celebration but also a bittersweet moment in what’s been a rocky history.

Over the course of the century, the fortunes of DHHL have risen somewhat when operational budget funds grew more stable, and have fallen when agency management seemed unable to deliver on the promises of the original law. Mismanagement was at the heart of a 1999 class-action lawsuit against the state; the high court ruled for the plaintiffs.

DHHL and the governing commission are notorious for the crushing waiting list that confronts any applicant. At the time of statehood in 1959, 1,700 Hawaiians had received lots with 2,500 still waiting. Now the list is up to 28,792 names — beneficiaries who have not benefited.

The problems can be complex. Some have been offered leases but not on the island where they want to live; or they get an offer of a lease, which is virtually free, but cannot qualify for financing of the house to be built on it.

There is a sad irony here. The whole purpose of the homesteading program was to enable Native Hawaiians to build family stability and wealth, but chronic poverty and disabling inequities have kept many from taking the first, empowering step.

There have been, more recently, welcome innovations, such as providing rentals as a stop-gap fulfillment of basic housing need, and other programs to expand homesteading options.

The recent transfer of the former Pacific Tsunami Warning Center site to DHHL was an encouraging, if incremental, development. The 80 acres in Ewa Beach represent the latest federal transfer made under a 1995 federal law aimed at settling the unauthorized use of Hawaiian Homes trust lands.

Correcting past wrongs is also what underlies the Prince Jonah Kuhio Kalanianaole Protecting Family Legacies Act, the bill now before Congress. Kuhio himself had argued for the 1/32nd blood-quantum successorship rule because he wanted families to have the generational benefits that property ownership conveys.

The legislation is a hopeful initiative, but one that, advocates rightly observe, does not alter the imperative to move people off the waiting list at last. In the end, pursuing both aims is key to fulfill the trust’s uplifting goals. And it shouldn’t take another century to achieve them.