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Lawmakers pledge to push $600M for Native Hawaiians to receive land through Homelands Commission

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Hawaiian home

HONOLULU (KITV4) -- State lawmakers are pushing a monumental proposal to get more land back into Native Hawaiian hands. The package includes $600 million in funding.

J. Kaleo Aikala said he's been on the Hawaiian homestead waiting list since the early 1990s. And when his lot came up about a decade later, he didn't have the money to build a home.

There are more than 28,000 Native Hawaiians on the waiting list for homestead land in Hawaii. Many wait decades to get the call for a piece of paradise... and that's if they're lucky to live that long.

"Prince Kuhio Kalanianaole started the Hawaiian Homelands Commission for the betterment of the Hawaiian people and for decades that hasn't been the case," he said. "I have a lot of relatives have died on our waiting list. I'm a little surprised that I'm being awarded now. I expected to die on the waiting list too."

Aikala's now taking over a homestead lease from his deceased brother.

It's been a century since the passage of the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act, which intended to return native Hawaiians to native lands. But now lawmakers seem to have the political will to invest in the program, potentially helping thousands of people get off the homestead waiting list.

House Speaker Scott Saiki pledged to help ease a growing backlog of beneficiaries, announcing his intention to push a $600-million bill that would fund the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands.

"Members it is time to give the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands the resources it needs to fulfill its fiduciary duties," Saiki told lawmakers this week at the opening of the Legislature.

A major problem has been a lack of state funding for infrastructure development needed to support housing. Much of the homestead lands are in rural areas without roads, sewage, water or electricity.

Another barrier is access to financing for many native Hawaiians without the means to build a house once their number comes up.

"As housing costs continue to increase, Native Hawaiians in general -- our beneficiaries -- will be challenged to find homes that they can afford to mortgage themselves," said Tyler Iokepa Gomes, a deputy at the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands. "There is something very special and unique about this happening in our 100th year anniversary. I don't know that, you know, the first 50 years of this program could have been prepared to deploy something is as meaningful as $600 million. So I think now is the right time."

The Department of Hawaiian Home Lands manages more than 200,000 acres of land for homesteads. The historic amount of state funding, if passed by the Legislature, could help with lot development, land acquisition and down payment assistance.

"There's Native Hawaiians living under tents on the beach that are on the Hawaiian Homelands waiting list," Aikala said. "It would behoove the state to put this money into the commission to award them homes." 

Produced in partnership with the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.

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