Hawaiian housing bill earns U.S. House’s OK in second try
WASHINGTON » Hawaii's Democratic lawmakers, stressing that housing help for native Hawaiians was not a constitutional issue, succeeded yesterday in a second attempt to win U.S. House approval of legislation extending a program promoting homeownership.
The 272-150 vote on the bill came a week after the House rejected the same measure under a procedure where amendments are not allowed but a two-thirds majority is needed for passage. The vote last week was 262-162. It now goes to the Senate for consideration.
Republicans, in opposing the measure, cited a 2000 Supreme Court decision in arguing that special legal privileges for native Hawaiians were tantamount to racial set-asides and were unconstitutional. That decision, Rice v. Cayetano, declared that native Hawaiians were not entitled to different voting rights from other Hawaiians in electing members of a state agency, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.
But Hawaii's two Democratic lawmakers, Reps. Neil Abercrombie and Mazie Hirono, said that decision had no effect on the housing program, which has its origins in a 1921 act of Congress that set up a homesteading program to place eligible native Hawaiians on some 200,000 acres of land designated for that purpose.
"Please don't punish people who are trying to own their own homes, to keep their own homes, because of some ideological difference that we might have," Abercrombie said.
The bill reauthorizes a 2000 law that guaranteed loans and gave block grants to build infrastructure on land reserved for native Hawaiian homesteads.
A new provision allows the state Department of Hawaiian Home Lands to borrow money for large construction projects.
The 2000 law expired two years ago, but program funding has been sustained through an annual appropriation, state Department of Hawaiian Home Lands Chairman Micah Kane said. Between one-fifth and half of families in Hawaiian housing projects typically qualify for the aid based on their income levels.
Hirono said the bill provides opportunities for homeownership for low-income native Hawaiians, and "there is nothing in the bill that speaks to creating a political relationship between native Hawaiians and the federal government akin to the relationship between the federal government and American Indian tribes."
That issue was in the forefront last year when Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, fell short in advancing legislation giving native Hawaiians some of the same self-governance powers possessed by American Indians.
Hirono said she and Abercrombie had reintroduced that bill, and "we can discuss the merits of self-determination for native Hawaiians when and if the Congress considers that bill."