A Failed Housing Pledge to Native Hawaiians
This story was co-published with the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, a member of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network.
In the 1990s, Hawaii’s two elder statesmen — U.S. Sens. Daniel Inouye and Daniel Akaka — were at the forefront of efforts to ensure that the U.S. compensated Native Hawaiians for ancestral lands taken from them over the years.
“Dan Inouye believed that a promise made should be a promise kept,” Akaka, a Native Hawaiian, said in 2012 upon the death of his longtime Senate colleague.
But an investigation by the Honolulu Star-Advertiser and ProPublica has found that those same senators voted several times each to support must-pass legislation that included provisions undermining efforts to repay millions of dollars in land debt to Hawaiians. At least six other current and former members of Hawaii’s congressional delegation have supported such legislation one or more times.
Between them, Hawaii’s members of Congress voted for at least six laws authorizing the federal government to sell dozens of excess properties to private parties rather than offering them to a Hawaiian trust established to repatriate the land. In one must-pass military spending bill spanning more than 500 pages, lawmakers slipped in a single sentence that helped a handful of nonprofits to acquire the land. In another, they added language that effectively put the need for military housing ahead of the need for housing Hawaiians.
The circumvention of the landmark 1995 Hawaiian Home Lands Recovery Act, which has not been previously reported, sent the excess lands to a variety of buyers instead: the Catholic Church; the nonprofit operator of a private school; a developer that intends to sell a site to another company with plans to construct hundreds of private-sector homes there.
The transactions mostly involved lands on Oahu, the state’s most populous island, and were executed during a period in which the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands, which manages the trust, faced a severe shortage of developable residential land there. About 11,000 Hawaiians are now seeking residential homesteads on Oahu, nearly double what the figure was when the recovery act passed. As the Star-Advertiser and ProPublica reported in December, the trust has only enough land to accommodate less than a third of those homestead-seekers in single-family homes, although it is moving to develop more multi-family housing. Many waitlisters are homeless, and thousands have died without getting a homestead lease.
Even as the federal government was selling excess properties to private buyers, it offered only two parcels to the trust over the past decade, according to the news organizations’ investigation. And one was for a remote mountainside location that DHHL rejected because it determined that the property — a former solar observatory — wasn’t suitable for residential use or to lease for other purposes.
The findings confirmed the suspicions of Mike Kahikina, who said he had a hunch something was amiss during the eight years he served on the Hawaiian Homes Commission, which decides policy for DHHL.
Kahikina joined the commission in 2011, 16 years after the recovery act was signed. Along with eight other commissioners, his job was to help the department get beneficiaries onto residential, ranching and farming homesteads in a timely way — a task DHHL has struggled with historically. By the time he left in 2019, the federal government’s debt was the same size as when he joined.
Kahikina said he periodically raised questions with DHHL about the land debt, but they were never satisfactorily answered.
The news organizations shared their findings with Kahikina — an Air Force veteran, former state legislator, ordained minister and outreach worker for troubled youth — as he sat outside the West Oahu homestead residence that has been in his family for three generations. With his long salt-and-pepper hair tied back in a bun, Kahikina, who now heads the Association of Hawaiians for Homestead Lands, a statewide nonprofit organization of waitlisters, was stunned as he learned details of the private deals. “You connected the dots for me,” he said, repeating himself to emphasize the point. “It’s like we’re an invisible people.”