Saturday, November 6, 1999

U.S. Senate passes
home lands funding

If the House gives its OK,
$200 million over five years will
subsidize housing for needy
native Hawaiians

By Susan Kreifels


Tony Sang is a little closer to having more space in his home.

Sang, a native Hawaiian, has six children waiting to settle on Hawaiian home lands. Because of the high cost of living in Hawaii's tough economy, three adult children still live with him, along with three grandchildren.

Eighty years ago, the federal government committed to settling native Hawaiians on their home lands. Now, after a decade of politicking, the U.S. Senate has finally passed the Native Hawaiian Housing Bill to fund the settlements.

If the House of Representatives follows suit next year, the federal government will spend $200 million over the next five years to accomplish what it set out to do in the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act of 1920. The money will target subsidized affordable housing programs for native Hawaiians with the greatest needs.

"This is the first time Congress has ever done something significant for the program," said Sang, president of the State Council of Hawaiian Homestead Associations. "This is the first big pot of money. It's way overdue."

Over the last 80 years, the federal government has contributed $7 million to the homesteading program. About 7,000 native Hawaiians have home lands, while more than 19,000 are on a waiting list. During the long wait for land, some native Hawaiians have died.

Lynette Sang, who has been on a waiting list for Hawaiian home lands for 10 years, said she felt relieved when she heard the bill was passed. "At least now we can get some houses built and put more people on that land," she said.

The House will take up the bill in the Subcommittee on Housing and Community Opportunities after Jan. 6.

"This will finally enable us to help the poorest of the poor native Hawaiians to obtain housing," said Karen Holt, a Hawaiian Homes Commission member. Federal studies show native Hawaiians live in the poorest housing conditions of all ethnic groups in the country. "This is a huge step forward."

Holt, who lobbied for passage of the bill, said the money would go to the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands to build infrastructure and create housing programs using grant money, without the debt-service obligations that have slowed up development in the past. The department would be able to improve vacant land and open it up more quickly for settlement.

Ray Soon, chairman of the Hawaiian Homes Commission, called the passage "among the more significant pieces of legislation affecting native Hawaiians" since the 1920 Hawaiian Homes Commission Act.

"The U.S. Senate has recognized that the native Hawaiian population has a severe housing need and that assistance is needed immediately," he said.

Programs under the bill focus on rental and home ownership projects that include development, construction, home rehabilitation, infrastructure, planning, self-help and counseling services to prepare families for homeownership and rental opportunities.

The bill funnels the money through the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands, which can only serve those with at least 50 percent native Hawaiian blood. But Holt said the Senate bill opens the door in the future for people with less native Hawaiian blood, perhaps by allowing other agencies to distribute money.

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