The Hawaiian Homes Commission approved new Chairman Ikaika Anderson’s conceptual plan to build more homes for Hawaiians even as questions remain over how various housing projects will be built and where.
Tuesday marked Anderson’s first meeting before the nine-member commission, which is tasked with overseeing trust lands set aside by an act of Congress. He presented a “five-point plan” that places a big focus on searching for alternative ways to deliver homes to more than 28,000 beneficiaries on the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands waitlist.
The commission went into executive session for more than an hour before voting on Anderson’s plan. It passed 7 to 2. Commissioners Randy Awo and Dennis Neves were the “no” votes.
Anderson told the commission that his proposals should all fit under Act 279, which allowed the historic sum and directed DHHL to develop lots, purchase land or housing units, provide funds for waitlist applicants, and provide mortgage or rental subsidies.
Before the end of the first quarter in March, Anderson said DHHL plans to issue four requests for proposals for projects expected to provide about 330 homes ready to live in. He said that he and Gov. Josh Green want to build homes waitlisters can actually live in and not just develop lots on which those beneficiaries could build homes.
Anderson said he also plans to restart regular meetings with homestead communities and other beneficiary groups. While meeting with those groups last year, Anderson said he found that many communities felt that state government is too “Oahu-centric.”
Three areas that could fit under a new spending plan for the $600 million the Legislature appropriated include proposals to pursue multifamily housing options as well as kupuna housing, like a 85-unit project for older adults already built in Waimanalo.
Anderson said his office is also looking into down payment assistance for waitlisters to use for homes on DHHL lands. Last week, his office told state lawmakers that the state Attorney General’s Office is still evaluating that idea.
Overall, the commissioners reacted positively to Anderson’s proposals, but wanted more details than provided in the one-page, bullet-point plan.
Awo said the panel typically receives project proposals in detailed packets submitted by staff and they’re usually tied to specific projects.
“This is not something that usually comes to us in this kind of format,” Awo said.
Awo voted “no” because he did not think it was necessary for the commission to approve statements from the chairman as opposed to fully vetted policy decisions.
Neves said pieces of Anderson’s plan are already in motion at DHHL and wanted to hear more specifics on the kinds of projects being proposed. He was one of the commissioners who worked on a committee to develop the original $600 million spending plan.
“When these things come up, we need detail or we waste a lot of time going ‘What is this?’” Neves said, adding that he appreciates Anderson’s “first effort” on a plan.
Commissioner Pauline Namu‘o said she supported Anderson’s proposal because it incorporates points from existing DHHL plans.
Anderson said that approving his plan-in-concept won’t tie the commission’s hands in future decisions on projects. It could still reject projects it deems not up to snuff.
Housing advocate Blossom Feiteira encouraged the commission to stick to its spending plan that was approved last year and was developed in conjunction with homestead communities.
“Please stay the course, you’ve already developed a plan and it’s a good plan, not something that came out of the dark,” Feiteira said.
As things stand now, DHHL would encumber $172 million by the end of the current fiscal year on June 30, and $367 million the year after. Additionally, the department planned to set aside about $60 million for homeownership assistance programs.
But several complications could make it difficult for DHHL to direct all $600 million to projects in time.
On Tuesday, the commission also voted unanimously to ask the Legislature to give DHHL until at least 2025 to encumber the funds, or set the money aside for specific projects.
Act 279 gives the department until June 30, 2025, to spend the money. But because of state constitutional rules, that deadline is actually pushed up to 2024, giving the department just a little more than a year to spend the funds.
Complicating the matter is a federal requirement that limits the amount of funds DHHL can encumber and spend while it still has relief funds for the coronavirus pandemic. Those requirements, called maintenance of effort, require states receiving relief funds to maintain proportional amounts of funding to public education even as other state agencies and programs see upticks in funding.
To avoid triggering the federal requirement, DHHL can only spend $50 million and encumber about $170 million in the current fiscal year which ends June 30, Lehua Kinilau-Cano, DHHL’s Native American Housing Assistance and Self Determination Act program manager, told the commission.
Without an extension, the department would need to encumber close to $400 million in one calendar year.
Regardless of those challenges and truncated timeline, Anderson said he’s confident the department will spend down the funds on time.
“I’m not at all saying that we cannot or will not encumber the funds on the existing timeline,” Anderson said. “But it’s believed the responsible action to take would be to support an extension.”
The Legislature will decide if the deadline should be extended. Lawmakers convene the 2023 session Wednesday.
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Blaze Lovell is spending a year as a local investigations fellow with The New York Times. He was previously a reporter for Civil Beat. Born and raised on Oahu, Lovell is a graduate of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.