Thousands of kupuna on the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands waitlist could be eligible for rental subsidies under a $10 million program funded by the federal government.

The Hawaiian Homes Commission approved the subsidy program at a meeting Nov. 21. The Department of Hawaiian Home Lands recently entered into a contract with the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement to manage the program.

The program is set to launch around February or March, according to DHHL spokesman Cedric Duarte.

The subsidies are meant for people on the DHHL waitlist age 62 and older. The department estimates that more than 14,996 people, or about 63% of those still alive on the waitlist, would qualify.

View of the urban core of Honolulu with various rentals and apartments/condominiums.
A new program is expected to help thousands of kupuna living in rentals while they wait for lease awards from DHHL. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

The income limit for the program is 80% of area median income. For a single person on Oahu, that comes out to a little over $73,000 a year. Applicants can’t receive Section 8 housing vouchers, and must live in Hawaii.

The subsidy covers monthly rent over 30% of an applicant’s monthly income. So if someone makes $1,000 a month, they would be responsible for paying $300 in rent; the subsidy would cover the rest. Utilities are only covered if they are included in the rent. Otherwise, those are still the responsibility of the renter, Lehua Kinilau-Cano, DHHL’s Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Act government relations program manager told the commission at its meeting last month.

The program provides rental assistance for one year, after which the renter would need to reapply. Caino told the commission that continuance of the program depends on the availability of federal funds.

The rental program comes from federal funds under the NAHASDA. U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz is pushing to reauthorize the act, which expired in 2013, in a move that could mean more money for Native Hawaiian housing.

The subsidies would be distributed to a renter’s landlord, who would also need to agree to take part in the program.

The renter is also required to participate in a program for housing counseling services, which includes spending a number of hours in sessions covering topics including home-buying, financial literacy, maintenance, debt management, credit repair and foreclosure prevention.

Other DHHL rental and mortgage assistance programs had similar counseling requirements, according to the department. The commission has a requirement that anyone receiving NAHASDA funds go through those counseling services.

The Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement would be responsible for administering the rental program, evaluating applications, disbursing subsidies and inspecting units to make sure they comply with federal requirements, according to a request for proposals for the program.

CNHA is also responsible for building a data dashboard to track the program’s recipients and expenditures and will be tasked with marketing the program next year. The office did not return calls seeking comment for this story.

Administrative costs for the program can’t run over $1.5 million, according to the RFP. That means at least $8.5 million is actually set aside for the rental subsidies.

The department has so far disbursed more than $12 million in rent relief since the start of the pandemic in 2020. CNHA was previously contracted to oversee much of that and also recently won a contract of just over $6 million for professional services for DHHL.

CNHA has been in the news recently over a dust-up involving the awarding of a tourism marketing contract. The council has taken on a much more prominent role recently in business and politics.

Duarte, a DHHL spokesman, said the department has been outsourcing the administrative work on these rent relief programs because DHHL at the moment doesn’t have the staff or resources to effectively manage the relief programs on top of other projects the department takes on.

“Now that might change because we have positions we are trying to fill, but for now, partners like CNHA are critical to implement these kinds of programs,” he said.

Duarte also said that the switch to a new chairman expected over the next month shouldn’t have any effect on the rent relief programs that DHHL is running. Gov.-elect Josh Green announced appointees for a majority of his Cabinet but has yet to pick new leaders for DHHL as well as the departments of Agriculture and Land and Natural Resources.

Thousands of elderly Hawaiian beneficiaries on the waitlist have already died without being granted a lot award from DHHL. Earlier this year, the Legislature allocated more than $300 million to settle a decades-long lawsuit brought by Hawaiian homelands waitlisters.

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