A huge influx of cash for the state Department of Hawaiian Home Lands this year could lead to the development of more than 3,100 housing lots to help reduce an ever-growing waitlist of Hawaiian beneficiaries, now totaling more than 28,000 individuals.

The final number of housing units and how many families could benefit from the more than $600 million approved by the Legislature for DHHL is yet to be determined. Preliminary plans approved last week anticipate a mix of housing developments that could pave the way for single family homes, multi-family units, agricultural and pastoral lots, and rentals across the islands.

“We are confident we can get this done,” DHHL Chair William Aila told the Hawaiian Homes Commission on Aug. 25 before it voted to approve the preliminary budget plans.

Department of Hawaiian Home Lands building located in Kapolei.
DHHL recently unveiled plans to spend $600 million on new lot developments. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

But those plans are preliminary, and much of the decision-making will be left up to the next administration. As it stands now, more than $500 million of that funding would be set aside for developing infrastructure on mostly vacant lots.

Both the candidates running for governor, Democratic Lt. Gov. Josh Green and former Republican Lt. Gov. Duke Aiona, disagree with that approach and want to see more money put toward developing actual housing units and putting those on the wait list on the land.

Aila’s term is up on Dec. 31. He was appointed by Gov. David Ige, who is term limited so could not seek another four years in office.

The next governor will need to appoint a new DHHL director and deputy who would both need to be confirmed by the Senate when the Legislature convenes in early 2023.

A final strategic plan is due in December, and the department is required to make annual reports on the status of funding each year after that.

The Department’s Plan

Act 279, known as the Waitlist Reduction Act, provided DHHL with a historic $600 million cash infusion on the condition that those funds are set aside for specific projects by June 30, 2025, or else the money will lapse and go back to the state.

The current plans now anticipate all of the money being set aside in the next two years, well ahead of the deadline.

Most of the projects set to get funding are on Oahu, where more than 1,500 lots are targeted for development. That’s followed by Maui County with 572 lots, the Big Island with 440 lots and Kauai with 190 lots.

Of those, about 326 lots are in the construction phase. Those include agricultural lots on Honomu on the Big Island, lots in Hoolehua and Naiwa on Molokai, agricultural lots in Honokowai on Maui, and others in Hanapepe and Anahola on Kauai.

 

The rest of the projects, including all those on Oahu, are in various stages of design or are going through agreements with developers. Many projects also need to undergo environmental reviews required by the state.

The single largest project will be a 600-lot development at the former site of the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Ewa Beach. The federal government transferred about 80 acres of land to DHHL last year. It was the first federal land transfer to DHHL that included running water, sewer and electrical lines that could provide infrastructure for new homes.

There’s also about $126 million set aside for developer agreements and infrastructure to develop more than 700 lots close to the rail line in East Kapolei. The new Kauluokahai community is expected to include some multi-family rental options, according to the department’s budget presentation.

Some developments, like the Villages of Leialii in West Maui, could also include multi-family units. Others in Honokowai on Maui and Anahola on Kauai are set aside mostly for agricultural lots.

Sen. Jarrett Keohokalole, who helped champion the funding measure, said he still needs to review the department’s plans but hopes DHHL can move swiftly to develop those lots. That could help prove to lawmakers that the department can handle increasing amounts of funds.

“It’s really important that they get these projects rolling right away,” Keohokalole said. “We need housing right now.”

Most of the money set aside for all of those lots will be spent on infrastructure costs like connecting water and sewer lines and electricity. That’s the department’s primary responsibility, said DHHL spokesman Cedric Duarte.

Most lots, like those in East Kapolei, will stay vacant until those offered a land lease on the waitlist finance construction of their new homes. However, Duarte said what kinds of homes get built on the lots the department is developing will be decided at a later date with input from Hawaiian beneficiaries.

The department also anticipates acquiring more than 300 new lots through land acquisitions, although where those might be have not been identified yet. It’s set aside $35 million for those efforts.

Another $30 million could go to providing incentives for developers working on the Ulu Ke Kukui project on Oahu and the Laiopua project in Kona, according to the department’s strategic plans.

The department also plans to set aside $60 million for homeownership assistance programs. Officials and lawmakers have floated the idea of offering down payment assistance to those on the waitlist, but those ideas are still preliminary.

The Candidates

Green said he hasn’t decided on who he would select to lead the department if he wins the November general election. He said he is looking for a team that has experience in development and finance.

Aiona also has not yet picked someone to lead DHHL.

Both candidates do, however, have ideas for how they’d like to spend the $600 million.

Entrance doors to Governor's Office at the Hawaii Capitol Building 1.9.14
Josh Green and Duke Ainoa both want to see DHHL develop more housing units. PF Bentley/Civil Beat/2014

“My whole objective is to build homes,” Aiona said. “And to put people in those homes who are on the waitlist.”

Focusing mostly on building infrastructure, but not building more housing units or not having programs to assist beneficiaries in acquiring homes, would leave the state with fallow land, Aiona said, adding that he wants the flexibility to use the DHHL money to develop more housing.

He also suggested restructuring lease agreements that the department has with beneficiaries in a way that would help them get financing from banks.

Green said he wants to incorporate ideas from the DHHL report but also take some ideas from beneficiary advocacy organizations.

“We need to leverage these dollars as broadly as possible,” Green said. “There are needs to build infrastructure, but that will be a piece, not the entirety.”

Green would also focus on developing more housing units. Green said he would look into acquiring lands with infrastructure already in place where housing could be quickly developed.

He also wants to see DHHL have a deeper partnership with the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, which offers programs on homeownership for Hawaiian beneficiaries. He’d like to see programs that offer down payment assistance to those on the waitlist and other programs that could help them get into housing.

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