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A 100-year program designed to provide native Hawaiians – especially the poor – with land to live in after the United States annexed the islands is failing. Thousands died waiting in line and even more cannot afford the mortgages they need.
Zalei Kamaile dreamed of having a home.
The professional ukulele player spent many hours entertaining tourists on Oahu and kept her tips in a cookie jar. The money went to a modest domestic fund for her and her mother, but she knew it would not be enough. Then, in 1987, Kamaile, then 35, took the step he considered his best chance of owning a home. She signed up for a homesteading program for native Hawaiians. Created by Congress in 1921, the program had a unique goal: to return Hawaiians – especially the poor – to their homelands.
In the next two decades, Kamaile received more than a dozen letters offering him the opportunity to obtain property. The land, part of a 203,000-acre consortium, would be virtually free under a long-term lease. But there was a problem: the candidate needed to build his own home or buy one from a developer. At least five of Kamaile’s offers went to new subdivisions in Kapolei, a growing dormitory community on West Oahu. Amid a booming housing market, homes were a bargain, costing about half the price of similar property elsewhere.
Kamaile, however, could not qualify for a mortgage.
During this period, she lost her job, declared bankruptcy and spent two years homeless, part of him living in a tent on the beach. Kamaile went over each offer, throwing the cards in the trash. “I cried a lot,” she said.
Today, Kamaile, 68, does not yet have an estate. She has about 3,500 candidates on a waiting list, 33 years after signing up. She lives in a cramped rented apartment in a low-income housing development and works as a caregiver for a disabled family friend who lives with her. Kamaile’s mother died last year, 10 days before her 91st birthday. Kamaile still regrets not being able to provide her with a home. “That was my only wish for her.”
The Honolulu woman’s story reflects the decades-old failure of the Hawaii Department of Natural Land to fulfill its mission.
According to state law, anyone who is at least half Hawaiian and 18 years of age or older is considered to be a beneficiary of the trust fund and has the right to obtain a family home “quickly and efficiently” Qualification for financing is not listed as a requirement, but it basically became one due to the way the program runs. As a result, Hawaiians with the financial means and knowledge to navigate the complicated system are able to obtain properties relatively easily, while thousands of others continue a long generation wait for the land that is their birthright, an investigation by the Honolulu Star-Advertiser and ProPublica found it.
Over the past 25 years, the department, known as DHHL, has invested extensively in the construction of extensive subdivisions. Designed to satisfy an overwhelming demand for housing, the remedy exacerbated the problem, as housing proved too expensive for many candidates.
The result has been an ever-growing waiting list, now numbering 23,000, while Hawaiian natives struggle in one of the most expensive real estate markets in the country. At the average rate, the department has developed residential plots since 1995, it would take 182 years to meet demand – before appearing on the expected growth of the waiting list.
State and federal watchmen have long criticized the department for failing to deliver properties in a timely manner, and this year, the Supreme Court of Hawaii concluded that “the state of Hawaii has done little to deal with the growing waiting list” in the past 30 years.
Under the current model, the department often goes thousands of times to find interested and qualified buyers, effectively avoiding the low-income Hawaiians who have been waiting the longest.
Since 1995, for example, DHHL has provided around 2,200 residential leases to residents of Oahu. Sixty percent of them went to beneficiaries who came from census tracts with an average household income in excess of $ 75,000, the two news organizations found through an unprecedented analysis of tens of thousands of rental transactions, waiting list records and other documents.
Jade Miyazaki was one of them. A hotel marketer, she already owned a small semi-detached house, but signed up for the homesteading program in hopes of getting more space for her family of five.
She got a house in 2010 in Kanehili, one of the subdivisions that Kamaile, the ukulele player, passed on. Miyazaki waited only a quarter of the time, even though she was more than 2,000 places ahead of the waiting list. But, unlike Kamaile, Miyazaki could pay the mortgage.
She was among the last of the so-called waitresses to receive land leases in the 375-subdivision subdivision, where house prices at the time averaged about $ 345,000 in today’s dollars.
Today, the average family income for Kanehili and two other subdivisions of nearby farms is about $ 100,000. This is almost double the average income of approximately $ 55,000 for families with waiters, according to a 2017 federal study on Hawaiian native housing.
“This program creates a divide between Hawaiians,” said Vanessa Garcia Phillips, a beneficiary leader who has been on the waiting list for relatively few years. “You have what you have and what you don’t have.”
In the meantime, more Hawaiians will continue to die waiting. Analyzing the trust records, Star-Advertiser and ProPublica found that more than 2,000 beneficiaries have already died while on the waiting list without receiving properties – a number that has not been reported previously, but that many agree is a serious count. The department records the death of a beneficiary only if the family provides a death certificate.
The investigation by news organizations marks the first time that DHHL’s subdivision strategy has been examined extensively, and many of the findings are new – even for DHHL. The agency said it had no staff or tools to replicate the analysis, but acknowledged that its model produced housing prices out of reach for many waitresses.
Still, officials defended the approach, saying they were doing what they could to fulfill what the waitresses consistently rank in the polls as their primary choice: single-family homes. When the department built duplexes about two decades ago, it received a mediocre response from beneficiaries, some of whom believe the law promises land, not just housing.
About 8,400 residential leases have been granted since 1921, said William J. Aila Jr., who serves as department director and president of the Hawaiian Homes Commission, which oversees the agency and the real estate fund. To solve the problem of accessibility, he said, the department offered a greater number of less expensive rental options, such as empty land where beneficiaries can build their own homes. It also offers services such as financial education classes to help low-income beneficiaries.
“It is not a complete success. But it is not a total failure, ”said Aila, who lives on a farm.
Many beneficiary advocates and political leaders disagree. They say the agency needs to reshape its approach and focus more on housing that waitresses can afford.
“It’s not working for anyone,” said ex-Governor John Waihee, the only Hawaiian native to serve in that role – his term was from 1986 to 1994 – and whose father died while on the waiting list. “It is not working for the community. It is not working for the state of Hawaii. If the program were doing what it should, we would have less of a housing crisis than we have now. “
A PRINCE’S VISION
In 1893, the United States supported the illegal overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy, in part to protect US sugar interests on the islands. A group representing sugar planters, financiers and descendants of US and European missionaries, supported by US naval forces, deposed the monarchy and proclaimed a provisional government. Five years later, the US annexed the island chain, obtaining about 1.8 million acres of land from the former kingdom without compensating the Hawaiians. At that time, the indigenous population was heading towards extinction, as diseases, poor living conditions and other factors contributed to its ever smaller number. Many impoverished Hawaiians, who had been displaced from their lands, lived in slum-like slums in the city of Honolulu.
Prince Jonah Kuhio Kalaniana’ole, considered the father of the Hawaiian Homes program and the then non-voting delegate from Hawaii to Congress, around 1918 envisaged the use of some of the lands of the ancient kingdom to create a land fund to raise Hawaiians natives. Kuhio’s idea was to return them to their native lands so that they could become self-sufficient, maintain culture and reverse population decline. “This rehabilitation bill is the first opportunity given to the poor to go to land with funds to help them earn a living,” said Kuhio in Honolulu in 1920, while lobbying for public support.
The Hawaiian Homes Commission Act was sanctioned in 1921. But the program, administered by the territorial government of Hawaii under US supervision, was seriously undermined from the start.
Much of the land was remote and unsuitable for housing, lacking water and other basic things. And the federal government has provided few resources and inadequate oversight. In the first 38 years, only about 1,700 properties were granted. Poor conditions persisted after the state took over management as a requirement to become a state in 1959.
State and federal reports spanning decades have identified many shortcomings, including the state’s inability to deliver properties in a timely manner.
Stung by decades-old criticism of the waiting list problem, DHHL in the early 1990s moved from the so-called pocket enterprise – building houses in small numbers – to building large subdivisions. The move has enabled the agency to offer dozens, sometimes hundreds, of so-called batch-ready homes.
The Waihee administration was instrumental in advancing this strategy. The governor and his team secured a $ 600 million deal from the state to compensate DHHL for the misuse of fiduciary land in the years after the state was created. The state paid the agency $ 30 million annually for 20 years from 1995, and much of that money went to infrastructure works for new subdivisions.
Some waitresses were thrilled. The benefits of obtaining a rural property are substantial in a state with booming property markets; the average price of a single-family home previously purchased on Oahu, for example, reached $ 789,000 in 2019.
For ready-to-use houses, beneficiaries pay about half of what they would pay for comparable houses outside fiduciary land. That’s because DHHL, not the buyer, covers land and infrastructure costs, builders say. In addition to the purchase price, beneficiaries pay only $ 1 per year for the 99-year lease of the land.
Maintaining a lease has significant tax advantages. Homesteaders do not pay property tax for the first seven years after the lease is granted. After that, they still have a break, depending on the location. On Oahu, homesteaders pay $ 300 a year, regardless of the amount of the home, potentially saving thousands of dollars a year.
But when the department started building its first planned subdivision in 1994, the authorities soon encountered a problem: the lack of qualified buyers.
Winona Kauhane, a former credit officer for a private creditor who worked with DHHL on the project, recalled looking at requests for a waiting list to fill the 271 new houses at Princess Kahanu Estates along Oahu’s Waianae Coast. Development aimed to provide housing for the working poor – usually two-income families who had no money to buy elsewhere. However, looking through several thousand files, Kauhane realized that most applicants did not qualify for the mortgages needed to buy the homes, which averaged about $ 208,000 in today’s dollars.
Motivated to bring Hawaiians to earth, Kauhane helped create a legal solution that involved recruiting a family member from a waitress who could finance the business. The rent would be granted to the applicant, who served as a transfer and, simultaneously, transferred it to the family member who financed the purchase. Depending on the circumstances, the applicant may still live in the home. “That was the only way to get these people or their families home,” said Kauhane. “They deserved that opportunity.”
There were more than 100 of these simultaneous transactions after lease concessions in the past 25 years, according to the analysis. Even with the alternative solutions, however, the department still had to go more than 4,000 bottom on the waiting list to get enough buyers for the 271 homes in Princess Kahanu Estates – an indication to some critics that the subdivision model has been problematic since the start.
“THEY EXCLUDE PEOPLE LIKE ME”
Over the years, native Hawaiians have increasingly turned to the homesteading program for help, as Hawaii faces a severe housing shortage and the country’s second worst homeless crisis. The statewide residential waiting list has grown by more than 50% since 1995.
Although DHHL does not systematically track revenue, there are indications that many applicants are struggling financially. A federal study found that about 20% of families on the waiting list received public cash assistance – almost three times the rate for native Hawaiians and more than six times the rate for the general population. According to a separate survey conducted by DHHL in 2014, only about a quarter of waitresses said they could pay 10% down payment on a $ 150,000 home mortgage. Many ready-to-use properties now cost at least twice that. In Kapolei, on the west side of Oahu, where Kanehili was developed and where much of the island’s residential growth is taking place, prices in new property neighborhoods are approaching $ 400,000.
“When you do all the development ready to use, and the average price of a house is somewhere between $ 300,000 to $ 400,000, what happens is that you start to slide the cream off the waiting list, only those that can qualify for these homes, ”Aila, the DHHL director, recognized. “So you miss a lot of people.”
Robin Danner, a Kauai beneficiary leader, said DHHL needs to rethink its financial needs and give beneficiaries more flexibility to build their own homes. “Their duty is not to check my credit,” she said. “Their duty is to give me my land.”
Aila acknowledged that the law does not require the beneficiary to qualify for a mortgage to obtain property. But any structure built on fiduciary land must comply with the county’s building and zoning codes, according to the state administrative rules the department uses, and which prohibits substandard buildings. “We can’t let you live in a tent because it’s a substandard life,” said Aila.
Critics, however, say DHHL, with its focus on subdivisions, has strayed far from the intent of the 1921 homesteading law. “The program is really upside down,” said attorney Tom Grande, who represents 2,700 plaintiffs. in a class action lawsuit against DHHL that received a favorable decision from the Supreme Court this year. “It is serving the Hawaiian natives who are middle class or upper middle class. It does nothing for the Hawaiians who work poor or homeless. ”
Native Hawaiians are overrepresented in the homeless population. In a survey earlier this year with about 1,200 homeless homeless people on Oahu, 1 in 5 was eligible for the homesteading program and 7% were on the waiting list.
Louisa Keawe, 60, signed up for the homesteading program in 2010. Today, she lives in a tent at Waimanalo Beach Park, on the windward side of Oahu. The ex-caretaker said she had nowhere to live for about seven years and had not worked for about a decade because of a disability. She survives on about $ 800 in monthly Social Security benefits and food stamps, and recently bought a new stall with her federal stimulus check.
Keawe said he received several offer notices, but did not seek them out, believing he could not qualify for a mortgage. The system, she lamented, favors the rich.
“People who are doing well at the high level, at the first level, can seek a place in Hawaiian homes. The second level? Average. They will chase. But in my case, I can’t pursue anything, ”said Keawe. “They exclude people like me.”
Age can also be a limiting factor. Star-Advertiser and ProPublica found that more than half of all waitresses are over 60, an age when taking on a new mortgage can be difficult. News organizations interviewed more than a dozen people who signed up decades ago and are now approaching retirement age.
Gregory Ah Yat, a resident of Oahu, was a tenant throughout his adult life. He signed up for the homesteading program 33 years ago, but, like Keawe, he went over several rental offers, either because he was unable to buy them or because he didn’t like the location. A longtime tour bus driver, he lost his job when the coronavirus pandemic closed Hawaii’s tourism industry in March.
Now 68, Ah Yat has little hope of getting a property. “I’m going to die before that happens,” he said. “I will never be able to make payments, not even in 30 years.”
“HANDBOOK” OR HAND?
DHHL claims to offer a variety of programs designed to help low-income beneficiaries become homesteaders. Services range from education classes for home buyers and financial literacy training to more direct financial aid.
Much of the funding comes from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which has provided the state agency with more than $ 150 million in the past two decades. But that help reached only a fraction of the waitresses.
Since 2002, more than 2,000 individuals and families have received training for home buyers and other assistance, according to Ryan Okahara, director of the HUD field office in Honolulu. In addition, about 600 waiters received financial aid to buy – or build – houses on fiduciary land.
Those earning 80% or less of an area’s average income are eligible to take advantage of federal funds to obtain a zero-interest loan or assistance with down payment. In Oahu, this income limit translates to $ 67,500 for an individual and $ 96,400 for a family of four.
Shannon Chow applied for financial aid several years ago. As an airline employee supporting a family of four, she qualified for an interest-free loan from DHHL. The agency approved $ 267,000, which Chow, 49, used to build a house on a vacant lot in Waimanalo, a community historically native to Hawaii.
But, in a sign of how slow the original appropriation process works, she failed to get the rent based on her position on the waiting list, which was more than 4,500 from the top. She inherited it in 2018, when her mother, Cecilia Chow, died at the age of 70 that year. Cecilia waited more than 30 years before getting her rent.
With the DHHL loan, as well as assistance from the Honolulu Habitat for Humanity, Shannon Chow built a 1,200 square foot house, four bedrooms and two bathrooms on site.
At the July ceremony when it received the keys to its new home, Habitat for Humanity placed an empty chair with a Hawaiian necklace in honor of its late mother. Chow wiped away his tears as he looked at the empty chair beside her, wishing his mother was there. “We are always thinking about her,” said Chow after the ceremony. “It’s because of her that we got this house.”
Blossom Feiteira, a Maui beneficiary who runs a group of waiters and used to teach financial literacy classes, said that even homeless candidates can become homesteaders if they take advantage of the services and are willing to do what is necessary, such as improving their credit position, to get ready for home ownership. “This is not meant to be alms,” she said. “It’s supposed to be a hand up.”
But other advocates say the programs are of little use to many struggling waitresses. For example, those who have the opportunity to obtain a ready-to-use home rental usually need to pre-qualify for a mortgage within 45 days. This is not enough time for most low-income waitresses to get their finances in order, said Jeff Gilbreath, director of loans at the non-profit Hawaii Community Lending, which serves beneficiaries. The vacant lots on which the beneficiary builds – as Chow did – may be an alternative, but they come with their own challenges, including obtaining a loan for construction and managing contractors, he said.
Gilbreath estimates that, even with federal and state assistance, it can take up to a year and a half for low-income beneficiaries who work with their nonprofit to resolve credit problems and build the savings needed to buy a rural property. And assistance programs are severely underfunded.
Gilbreath said low-income waiters can seek mortgage assistance from a federal program, known as the Section 502 Direct Loan program, but candidates are competing against others every year. In some cases, the annual program allocation to Congress ends before the end of the year, causing delays in aid. Beneficiaries who try to navigate the complicated system may be discouraged and give up, said Gilbreath.
Success stories, he added, are “more the exception than the rule”.
SHORT FINANCING, DELAYED CONSTRUCTION
Aila acknowledged that her agency is not delivering properties quickly and efficiently. The fundamental reason, he said, is inadequate funding. “Everyone agrees that this is the problem. The Legislature agrees, the federal government agrees, we agree, the beneficiaries agree. ”
The pace of construction began to slow substantially in the late 2000s, when the agency fought allegations of mismanagement and dealt with a lack of funding. To maintain operations, employees diverted money from construction to administrative costs. This resulted in fewer new batches produced and prizes being offered. In three of the past five years, home premiums have fallen by a single digit, according to news organizations’ analysis. In 2018, only six of these contracts were awarded.
Although the Supreme Court of Hawaii ruled in 2012 that the state is constitutionally required to provide sufficient funding for the agency, the governor approved only about a fifth of the annual amounts that DHHL has requested since, the department’s data show.
Governor David Ige did not respond to requests for interviews for this story, but provided a written statement. Although he did not directly address DHHL funding, he said that budget requests sent to his office by state agencies are based on what they believe to be sufficient funding. Still, it is often “three to four times or more than the resources available to us. As governor, I must prioritize and balance budget requests with available resources. ”
State Representative Sylvia Luke, who heads the House Finance Committee, noted that the Legislature over the past eight years has appropriated the amount the governor sought for the homesteading agency. Although the amounts were less than what the department requested, they were still substantially higher than what it had received historically.
“It is so convenient to blame the financing,” she said.
Construction has increased in recent years and DHHL expects to offer hundreds of subdivisions on three islands over the next few years. In December, the agency plans to hold a virtual meeting for 37 new houses ready for use in Kapolei. Prices range between $ 246,000 and $ 384,000.
But no subsidized assistance is available to help low-income waiters buy houses; instead, the agency is focusing on providing assistance for building houses on vacant lots, an option generally more accessible to those with fewer resources. The beneficiaries selected for Kapolei houses would have to obtain financing through a conventional lender.
TURNING OFF THE MODEL
Some beneficiaries, advocates and political leaders say that DHHL needs to discard the subdivision model and create a new one that better fits the needs of waiters.
“The situation with DHHL I don’t think is a consequence of incompetence or cheating or indifference or even mediocrity,” said former governor Neil Abercrombie, who served from 2010 to 2014. “There are elements of this in everything, no doubt. But mostly, the model just doesn’t serve the purpose. It was difficult from the beginning and it has become impossible now. ”
Analysis by Star-Advertiser and ProPublica found that DHHL would take nearly two centuries to meet existing demand if it continued to develop at the current rate. “My God,” US Senator Mazie Hirono, a Democrat from Hawaii, said in response to the findings. “That is why they cannot continue to use this model.” She believes that state lawmakers should hold hearings to investigate the homesteading program.
In Oahu, where residential demand is highest, the focus should be more on condominiums and other housing more accessible to waiters, critics say.
“Otherwise, the 100 years of failure will continue,” said Iwalani Laybon-McBrayer, a homesteader Kapolei and president of the Homestead Housing Authority, a nonprofit organization that advocates for construction projects on fiduciary land.
But not all beneficiaries agree. Homesteaders like Miyazaki are happy with the program. Este ano marca o 10º aniversário de seu prêmio de aluguel de uma casa de dois quartos em Kapolei. “Eu adoro isso, considerando que minha hipoteca é menor que o aluguel da maioria das pessoas”, disse Miyazaki, cujos pagamentos são de US $ 1.200 por mês. “É muito bom ter uma casa.”
Aila diz que a DHHL se dedica ao seu atual modelo de habitação, principalmente devido às pesquisas conduzidas pelo departamento que mostram que a maioria dos garçons ainda quer moradias unifamiliares em lotes padrão, que têm cerca de 5.000 pés quadrados.
Quando a DHHL desenvolveu duplexes no início dos anos 2000 perto de Papakolea, uma comunidade rural a poucos minutos do centro de Oahu, ela teve que ir fundo na lista de espera para encontrar 86 compradores, incluindo alguns que haviam se inscrito menos de dois anos antes. As unidades foram vendidas por um preço médio, ajustado pela inflação, de cerca de US $ 291.000.
Dito isso, os funcionários da DHHL dizem que estão respondendo aos apelos por opções mais acessíveis para garçons. Desde 2014, em reação às demandas dos beneficiários, a agência revisou suas regras para permitir uma gama mais ampla de opções de moradia, incluindo pequenas casas e residências multifamiliares.
Nos próximos cinco anos, o departamento espera desenvolver um mínimo de 1.300 lotes – o dobro da taxa média dos últimos 25 anos – para uma variedade de usos, incluindo agricultura. Cerca de metade será para residências unifamiliares, com a maioria das ofertas em novos loteamentos. O departamento também anunciou recentemente a seleção de um incorporador para seu primeiro projeto de arranha-céu, um edifício de 23 andares com 270 unidades para aluguel na cidade de Honolulu. As unidades não devem entrar em operação até meados de 2024.
Garçons mais velhos dizem que as mudanças, embora bem-vindas, chegam tarde demais para eles. E os críticos dizem que as medidas não são suficientes para os havaianos de baixa renda porque a agência ainda depende muito de moradias para uma única família – um modelo que está em desacordo com a intenção do Hawaiian Homes Commission Act.
Carl Varady viu o mal. Como advogado, ele trabalhou com Grande representando 2.700 autores na ação coletiva contra a DHHL. Após 21 anos e uma série de vitórias jurídicas, os beneficiários ainda aguardam indenizações. Cerca de 400 morreram desde que o processo foi aberto em 1999.
“Sem as pessoas realmente olhando para o propósito deste estatuto e cumprindo a obrigação fiduciária”, disse Varady, “haverá outra geração de havaianos marginalizados, vivendo na praia e esperando por algo que deveriam ter obtido décadas atrás”.
Rob Perez é um repórter investigativo do Honolulu Star-Advertiser. Ele trabalhou em jornais na Flórida, Califórnia, Havaí e Guam, de onde ele é.
Agnel Philip é um repórter de dados da Rede de Relatórios Locais da ProPublica.