SA: HHL financial-assistance proposal stirs debate

Hawaiian Home Lands financial-assistance proposal stirs debate
Dan Nakaso, Star-Advertiser, 27 March 2022

Proposals to infuse $600 million to help clear the backlog of Hawaiian Home Lands beneficiaries include different ways to provide financial assistance to Native Hawaiians willing to remove themselves from the waitlist of 28,700 beneficiaries.

“It’s great we’re trying to give a whole variety of options for the people on the waitlist,” said state Sen. Maile Shimabukuro (D, Kalaeloa-Waianae-Makaha), chairwoman of the Senate Hawaiian Affairs Committee.

“It’s very, very, very exciting,” Shimabukuro said. “We’re not going to force it down people’s throats. They can stay on the waitlist.”

Currently, beneficiaries who are awarded lots are responsible for paying for their homes or building them on land that DHHL develops.

Beneficiaries pay $1 a year for a 99-year lease, have the option to renew the lease for an additional 100 years and the ability to transfer the lease to children and grandchildren who qualify.

One idea for a pilot project that was approved by the Hawaiian Homes Commission in December 2020 would help beneficiaries come up with the down payment to purchase a fee simple home outside of Home Lands. DHHL would retain the land and lease it to the the homebuyer, who would have to repay the financial assistance after refinancing or selling the home. DHHL also would have the option to buy the home and keep the property in its inventory for potential use by future beneficiaries.

A modified idea would provide financial assistance to a beneficiary to buy a home outside of Home Lands in exchange for removing the buyer’s name from the waitlist.

Another program proposed this legislative session would give $100,000 to beneficiaries already living in fee simple homes in exchange for removing their names from the waitlist.

The proposals concern Robin Danner, chairwoman of the Sovereign Council of Hawaiian Homestead Associations, who called them “almost offensive. … Would you advise your parents to remove themselves from the right to Social Security in exchange for pennies on the dollar? … It’s bewildering. It’s mind-boggling.”

None of the ideas were part of the original Hawaiian Homestead Act of 1923, which was a condition of Hawaii statehood in 1959.

“This is federal law and requires the consent of Congress,” Danner said. “You can’t just make stuff up to remove people’s birthright. It’s a second-grade solution to a fifth-grade problem. First it was a casino (to further fund DHHL) and now we’re trying to buy people off. How about we just focus on acquiring land and putting in infrastructure?”

Richard Soo received an Oahu homestead in 2001 and said the $100,000 buyout undervalues future appreciation to current owners of fee simple homes.

“In essence, the state is paying Hawaiians off at a paltry price, in my opinion,” Soo said. “The state would not have been created in 1959 if not for the obligation of the state to take care of us Native Hawaiians. … Now they’re corralling a whole bunch of us Native Hawaiians and trying to pay us off in one fell swoop. They’re just trying to close out our rights to land.”

At the request of legislators, DHHL conducted an email survey this month of about 12,000 beneficiaries asking, “If DHHL provided you with $100,000 to purchase a new home, to pay your mortgage, or to pay your current rent, would you be willing to remove yourself from the DHHL waiting list?”

Just under 600 people responded and 45% said they would remove their names, while 55% would not.

“That speaks volumes that they would really welcome that kind of immediate help,” Shimabukuro said. “It’s a brilliant out-of-the-box idea. I think it’s fantastic. Talk about a win-win all around.”

Discussions over using some of the proposed $600 million either for a direct payment or down payment assistance overlooks that most of the money would go to fulfill DHHL’s core mission and develop nearly 3,000 homestead lots “that are shovel-ready projects” that also will “create lots and lots of jobs,” said DHHL spokesperson Cedric Duarte.

“Ideally we’re serving the greatest amount of beneficiaries,” Duarte said. “And we’re not penalizing a beneficiary who bought a house already.”

The latest versions of House Bill 2511 and Senate Bill 3359 appear headed to conference committee.

State Sen. Jarrett Keohokalole, vice chair of the Senate Hawaiian Affairs Committee, called the bills “the single most significant demonstration of support for Hawaiian Homes by the Hawaii Legislature in state history — if we can get there.”

Keohokalole (D, Kailua-­Kaneohe), also chair of the Legislature’s Hawaiian Caucus, said the bills represent “the most significant piece of legislation that most members of the Hawaiian Caucus will be part of.”

“This is a generational proposal,” he said. “It’s important for us to get this right.”

Keohokalole did not shy from the failure to get beneficiaries on their ancestral lands or criticisms of the latest bills to develop more land and clear the waitlist.

“There is no debate that the state has failed the purpose of the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act,” he said. “I am certain we’re not going to be able to satisfy everyone. And I am certain it’s not going to go far enough, and I am certain it’s not going to be perfect.”

But the current proposals would help a wide array of beneficiaries — whether they accept financial help or choose to remain on the waitlist, Keohokalole said.

“I have long believed that our fiduciary responsibility to the beneficiaries means that we should be targeting the beneficiaries who need the help the most, including kupuna who are at risk of dying while on the waitlist … and to the people who need a place to live and need help,” Keohokalole said. “If a beneficiary agrees to accept the financial assistance — and is able to acquire a home whether on the homestead or not — (it) is a win for that individual beneficiary and their family.”

Shimabukuro remains hopeful that a bill will emerge this legislative session that funds new Home Lands development and provides some form of financial payments to beneficiaries willing to get off the waitlist.

“I’m optimistic because it’s in both versions,” she said. “Both houses agree that we should give people options.”

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