SA: Hawaiian homestead bills advance at state Legislature

Hawaiian homestead bills advance at state Legislature
By Andrew Gomes, Star-Advertiser, 4 Feb. 2022

A plan backed by most Hawaii lawmakers to give a historic sum of money to ramp up development of homesteads for potentially thousands of Native Hawaiians took two initial steps forward Thursday at the Legislature.

Separate committees in the state House and Senate unanimously voted to advance a pair of bills aimed at delivering $600 million this year to the state Department of Hawaiian Home Lands so the agency can dramatically reduce an immense backlog of around 28,700 beneficiaries waiting for homesteads.

The identical bills, House Bill 2511 and Senate Bill 3359, were passed respectively by the House Committee on Judiciary and Hawaiian Affairs and the Senate Committee on Hawaiian Affairs.

House Speaker Scott Saiki publicly unveiled the DHHL funding goal during an opening-day speech at this year’s legislative session Jan. 19, and the two bills were introduced or sponsored by a majority of lawmakers: 46 of 51 House members and 16 out of 25 Senate members.

Public testimony submitted on the bills for Thursday’s initial hearings was overwhelmingly supportive and included 94 pages of written comments on the Senate measure.

Molokai resident and Hawaiian activist Walter Ritte conveyed just two capitalized words in his written comment: “FINALLY!!!!! JUSTICE.”

Organizations expressing support for the proposal included the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement, Office of Hawaiian Affairs, Catholic Charities of Hawaii and League of Women Voters of Hawaii.

A fair amount of testimony came from DHHL beneficiaries who had received a homestead and expressed how it has helped their lives as well as those who have been waiting a long time for the same thing.

The homestead program was created in 1921 through the federal Hawaiian Homes Commission Act. Beneficiaries by law must be at least 50% Hawaiian.

“What is most hurtful to me is that we have lost kupuna who waited, and two generations of our children who moved away, during the period because they couldn’t afford to live here,” Homelani Schaedel, a homestead resident in Kapolei, told both committees by videoconference. “It’s time to give the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands the resources it needs to fulfill its fiduciary duty.”

Marie Eckart, a single parent, said she has been waiting since 1975 for a homestead and that her mother died in 1996 waiting.

According to an analysis by the Honolulu Star-Advertiser and ProPublica, more than 2,000 DHHL beneficiaries have died while on the homestead wait-list.

“Please don’t let another homestead waitlist Hawaiian die waiting,” Eckart said in written testimony.

Many testifiers called the proposed funding for DHHL long overdue and a trigger for generational change.

In 2021 Hawaii lawmakers appropriated a record $78 million for DHHL to develop more than 700 homestead lots. The $600 million proposal this year equals a sum the Legislature approved in 1995 as part of a settlement over state obligations to the program, though the $600 million settlement was paid out over 20 years.

DHHL Director William J. Aila Jr. said in written testimony that it would take at least a century to meet the needs of all beneficiaries if funding remains at current levels and that he strongly supports the proposed extra funding.

Even with a $600 million boost, DHHL would still have a huge unmet need, given that the agency estimates the cost to develop enough lots on its land for all beneficiaries is at least $6 billion, based on a conservative per-lot estimate of over $150,000. At that price 4,000 lots could be developed with $600 million.

Under DHHL’s homestead program, beneficiaries receive 99-year land leases for $1 a year but have to pay for or build their own homes.

DHHL beneficiary Cheri Richards said in written testimony on SB 3359 that she hopes to receive a homestead after being on the agency’s wait-list since 1986.

“PLEASE do what is PONO and way overdue,” she said.

Both DHHL funding bills are headed next to financial oversight committees: the Senate Ways and Means Committee and House Finance Committee.

The Senate bill was amended to remove the dollar amount of funding as a customary change in deference to the financial oversight committee, according to Sen. Maile Shimabukuro, chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Hawaiian Affairs.

Shimabukuro (D, Kalaeloa-Waianae-Makaha) was among the bill’s introducers, and said after the committee’s decision, “Our intent is definitely to provide DHHL with the $600 million.”

One Response

  1. What is the 150 thousand dollars per Mr Aila said will be for? Cost of development per lot or building?


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