BILLIONAIRE BACK IN THE HEADLINES
Kawamoto: Outrageous or sincere?
Gensiro Kawamoto says he plans to rent Kahala homes to Hawaiians for $200 a month
Gensiro Kawamoto has a new vision for Kahala: Transform the high-priced locale into a neighborhood with more native Hawaiians.
The Japanese billionaire, who has invested in 18 homes on upscale Kahala Avenue, mostly in the last two years, says he now intends to rent them out to native Hawaiian families for between $150 to $200 a month.
Community response so far is mixed, with some believing Kawamoto is simply conjuring up outrageous ideas, while others hoped he was offering the low-priced rentals with sincerity.
"I'm not joking about it -- it's a sincere plan," Kawamoto told the Star-Bulletin through an interpreter.
Kawamoto, 74, said he's had the vision for four years.
Since 2002, he's been quietly investing in the Kahala area, buying the bulk of his homes in the last two years for anywhere between $2 million to $20 million apiece. His 18 Kahala Avenue homes -- a mix of oceanfront and mauka-side properties -- are worth more than $100 million combined.
Another five to eight oceanfront homes, including the former Hemmeter estate he bought last year, would be converted into museums to showcase Kawamoto's art collections, which include ceramics, Asian art, and European antiques.
Kawamoto offered no timetable for when the homes would be rented out, nor who would manage them, but said he was waiting to see what kind of response he would get.
He doesn't plan to make any significant upgrades to the homes because they are ready to rent now, he said. He outlined five- to 10-year lease terms for tenants. He expects tenants to take good care of the properties, he said.
His ideal renters would be large, low-income native Hawaiian families that are having a hard time finding a place to live in the state's high-priced housing market. They could invite their friends and relatives over and throw a beach barbecue on the weekends, he said.
"I'd like to honor what native Hawaiians say, that this used to be their land," he said. "We should honor their land."
The avenue, he said, has become "a luxurious place for the special people."
However, Kawamoto may run into a few walls when it comes to specifying what race or ethnicity he wants to rent his homes to.
The federal Fair Housing Act prohibits advertising or making any statement indicating a limitation or preference based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status or handicap.
Nonetheless, Kawamoto's vision involves 10 lots lined up next to each other to create one huge property, which would be rented out.
He wants to create a "better and fun community." He also said he wanted to promote Hawaiian and tropical gardens.
"In order to make this beautiful street, all the houses and gardens will be lit up in the evening so that people can enjoy the view at their own leisure," he said.
He's not finished with his investments yet -- he's hoping to own up to 25 homes on Kahala Avenue worth up to $200 million, which will come out of his own pocket.
He told the Star-Bulletin he does not plan to sell the Kahala homes.
"My focus in Hawaii is not about making money," he said in a written statement. "My real business is in Tokyo. Hawaii is a place for me to release my creativity. Since this is what I enjoy doing, I spend a lot of time thinking about my plans in Hawaii. I have decided to focus my energy on Kahala Avenue and now I want to continue to enjoy fulfilling my plans here."
Clyde Namuo, Office of Hawaiian Affairs administrator, said the concept, at least, is welcome.
"Considering that Hawaiians make up so many of the homeless and those in need of affordable housing, anyone providing opportunities for native Hawaiians, we would certainly commend," Namuo said. "I just hope it actually comes to fruition."
The Japanese real estate tycoon has made previous attempts to develop middle-class housing in Hawaii, ranging from a Kakaako high-rise to a 900-home subdivision on the slopes of Haleakala on Maui.
He blames bureaucracy for blocking him from completing those projects.
Kawamoto, once named on Forbes' list of richest people, has been called eccentric and erratic. He's never been married, nor does he talk much about his family.
"Women are very difficult to get along with," he said.
He spends about half the year in Hawaii, the other half in Japan.
Though he's laid out his visions, Kawamoto did not specify how he would implement his plan, saying only that he would proceed carefully and follow the law. He isn't keen on collaborating with city or state agencies.
Any museum in a residential neighborhood would require special approval through a conditional use permit, according to Henry Eng, director of the city Department of Planning and Permitting.
If it's along the shoreline, a museum would also need a special management area permit.
Kahala has its own separate covenants that allow residential lots to be occupied and used for residential purposes only.
The 1,700-member Kahala Community Association, an active group of residents, keeps a vigilant eye on covenant violations.
"Here's a person who could be well intended," said Lucinda Pyles, a neighborhood member speaking as a Kahala Avenue resident. "But if he is sincere, it would seem to me there are venues for him to do what he wants to do in a much better way."