Hawaiʻi Needs Sustained Commitment to Department of Hawaiian Homelands 

By Kirk Caldwell, Civil Beat Op-Ed, 2/21/2022

It is exciting news that the Hawaiʻi State Legislature hopes to allocate $600 million towards addressing housing needs through the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands (DHHL). It’s a great start, but DHHL needs a sustained commitment, not just a once-a-generation lump sum. 

If invested in developing new housing inventory, this can meaningfully make a difference for thousands of DHHL beneficiaries and Hawaiʻi families. Every house that DHHL builds is “affordable housing”, and 100% are bought by current Hawaiʻi residents or families coming home. No foreign purchases on DHHL land. 

The need for housing that Hawaiʻi families can afford is only becoming further out of reach with every family member that moves away, every report on the rising cost of homes, and every billionaire buying Maui and Kauaʻi lands. Our latest housing gap study identifies a need for 65,000 homes statewide by 2025 with less than 10% of that built each year. 

The State previously settled with beneficiaries for $600 million under Governor Waiheʻe for DHHL Trust lands illegally used or disposed of since Statehood. This settlement resulted in the development of over 4,000 homes. Meaningful, but let’s remember that 28,000 people remain on the waitlist. 

Any functioning operation needs staff, much less one of the state’s largest affordable housing developers. Just for perspective, the requested operating budget for the department is only 1/3rd that of DLNR, 1/40th that of DOE, and 0.3% of the State operating budget. Yet, for decades, the State didn’t provide more than a couple million dollars a year for operations – most years, they provided nothing, requiring DHHL to use trust funds intended to build more homes to support essential operations. 

Somehow the narrative has become that DHHL has fallen short, when actually it’s incredible what they have been able to do with such few resources from the State. As the saying goes: show me your budget, and I’ll tell you your priorities. 

In 1959, the Admissions Act recognized Hawaiʻi as the 50th state and transferred from the federal government to the State the responsibility to fulfill the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act. More than being the “right thing to do,” this responsibility was literally part of our entry into the United States. 

Now, DHHL beneficiaries are entangled in an ongoing 15-year lawsuit with the State over resources owed to DHHL to operate. The Supreme Court has already ruled that the State has failed in its constitutional obligation. Yet the State and Legislature continues to fight DHHL and its beneficiaries. 

I was encouraged to see the recent plan to dedicate funds to DHHL. When at the County, we made land available, sometimes with the state, and invested in infrastructure to make truly affordable housing possible at scale for projects like senior housing in Chinatown and ʻAiea, homes that could be afforded by families making under $60,000 per year in ʻEwa and Kapolei, and homes for 600 people experiencing homelessness, including over 300 keiki at Kahauiki Village. DHHL uses a similar model to build homes affordable for families across the state. 

I hope that these funds will be passed, and I hope the next Governor will execute them to build new housing inventory. But I especially hope that this leads to a commitment from the next Governor and Legislative branch to fully fund the annual allocation necessary for the department to do the work it needs to do for beneficiaries and to make bonds available so DHHL, HPHA, and HHFDC can build the housing Hawaiʻi’s families need. 

Not as a once-in-a-generation one-off but as a meaningful and sustained commitment. It is our responsibility.