For Native Hawaiians, the state’s management of Hawaiian homelands has amounted to a failure.

And the Legislature, which oversees the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands, is still wrestling with how to fix it.

“It is a wild child that needs its mother and father, the Legislature, to hold it accountable,” longtime homelands activist Robin Danner said of DHHL.

Lawmakers listened to several hours of testimony Monday from Native Hawaiian beneficiaries and homestead leaders who presented solutions to shorten the waitlist. They expressed frustration with what they say are the state’s shortcomings.

Senator Jarrett Keohokalole during DHHL meeting held at the Capitol.
Sens. Jarrett Keohokalole and Kurt Fevella respond to Native Hawaiian beneficiaries at a hearing Monday. Cory Lum

Danner, who is president of the Sovereign Council of the Hawaiian Homestead Associations, presented a 16-point amendment to the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act which asks the Legislature to make changes to address government transparency, treatment of beneficiaries and how trust assets are used.

Congress passed the act in 1920 to give homes to Hawaiians. Today, about 28,000 wait, and in many cases die, on an ever-growing list.

Sen. Maile Shimabukuro, who chairs the Hawaiian Affairs Committee, said shortly after the four-hour hearing that it’s likely some of the proposals lawmakers heard Monday could be introduced this legislative session, which begins in January.

“There was so much brought up. I’m definitely going to look into them, and I’m interested,” she said.

Danner’s proposal calls for separate legal counsel for Native Hawaiian beneficiaries, foreclosure protections for homesteaders and additional provisions to make loan access easier. 

The proposal also addresses Section 204 of the HHCA, which says the department can dispose of lands not needed for homesteading.

DHHL has used the section to approve development. Danner’s proposal asks lawmakers to declare that the department can’t give away land while Hawaiians still wait for homes.

Some decried the lack of a firewall between the Hawaiian Homes Commission, tasked with overseeing implementation of the HHCA, and DHHL, a state agency.

Elmer Ka’ai, a former DHHL employee, told lawmakers that the commission should elect the chairman from its membership and also choose the head of DHHL, rather than giving that power to the governor.

One of Danner’s proposals would create a committee to select the DHHL director in a process similar to the Judicial Selection Committee, also taking the governor out of the selection process.

Patty Kahanamoku-Teruya, a commissioner who testified before the Senate committee, agreed.

Commission meetings “should be run by the commission, not by the department,” she said.

Ka’ai estimated that about 50,000 Native Hawaiian beneficiaries are eligible for homes but have not even signed up.

In some cases, homestead leaders say DHHL got in the way of their projects.

Bo Kahui, from Villages of Lai Opua on Hawaii island, said the homestead association created a technology center at a nearby high school as well as a medical and dental building to serve the homesteaders. The community wrote its own grants, he said.

Community members also tried to build a renewable energy project but were stopped by the department because they were told they needed to go through the state’s procurement process.

“We have to compete on our own lands for our own self-sufficiency and economic development and I say hewa (wrong) to that,” Kahui said.

Glen Teves said that homelands on Molokai, some of the oldest in the state, still don’t have running water.

Other homestead associations have fared better with DHHL.

Puni Kekauoa, from Papakolea, said the biggest problem in her community has been vacant and abandoned lots. On a recent drive through the neighborhood, she counted 30 vacant homes.

Kekauoa said DHHL located the lessees to inform them that they’re violating the Hawaiian homes act by abandoning the properties and failing to notify DHHL. 

Shimabukuro said dealing with vacant lots is something lawmakers could consider, possibly with land swaps if aged homesteaders aren’t physically able to access their homes.

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