U.S. Senator Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii), Chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, held a legislative field hearing today on the Hawaiian Homeownership Opportunity Act attended by the entire Hawaii Congressional delegation and federal and local officials, scholars, and advocates.
"The United States has a trust relationship with Native Hawaiians as the indigenous people of these islands, of the State of Hawaii, and of what is now the United States," said Chairman Akaka. "Congress has understood this relationship for a long time and in 1920 passed the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act, setting aside 203,500 acres of land to ensure that the Native Hawaiian people had homelands where our ways and our communities could continue to thrive. As part of that federal trust responsibility, I held this hearing on a bill to reauthorize programs that provide housing assistance to Native Hawaiians, ensuring that the Native Hawaiian people have access to housing programs on our trust lands consistent with what the United States provides to other federally-recognized Native peoples."
The Hawaiian Homeownership Opportunity Act of 2011 (S. 65), introduced by U.S. Senator Daniel K. Inouye, would reauthorize programs of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that currently provide housing assistance for Native Hawaiians. A companion bill in the House was introduced by Representative Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), and cosponsored by Representatives Colleen Hanabusa (D-Hawaii), and Don Young (R-Alaska).
"Congress, through its enactment of over 150 statutes that protect the rights of and address the conditions of Native Hawaiians, has long recognized the Native Hawaiian people as an indigenous people with whom it has a federal trust relationship," said Hawaii State Senate Majority Leader Brickwood Galuteria. "The State of Hawaii continues to support efforts to enhance the self-determination and self-governance of the Native Hawaiian people."
"The special political and legal relationship between the United States and Native
Hawaiians arises from several sources including Federal and Congressional authorities," said Melody Kapilialoha Mackenzie, Associate Professor of Law at the University of Hawaii. "Congress has often legislated on behalf of Native Hawaiians, implicitly, and often explicitly, recognizing them as the native people of Hawaii, and oftentimes including them in legislation for other native people of the United States. To the framers of the Constitution, an "Indian tribe" was simply a distinct group of indigenous people set apart by their common circumstances, a definition that Native Hawaiians certainly satisfy."
"Like our American Indian and Alaska Native brethren with trust lands, it is important to ensure that our native communities on trust lands are eligible to utilize federal programs, which provide much needed housing, access to capital, and opportunities for economic self-determination," said Michelle Ka'uhane, Deputy Director, Department of Hawaiian Home Lands, State of Hawaii.
U.S. Senator Daniel K. Inouye said: "The people of Hawaii and our great nation are still struggling to regain their financial footing following the most significant downturn since the Great Depression. The impact on Native communities has been many, many times worse. Affordable and safe housing in Hawaii is difficult to obtain. As a result, Native families regularly face overcrowded and substandard living conditions."
U.S. Representative Colleen Hanabusa said: "The Hawaiian Homeownership Opportunity Act helps ensure the native Hawaiian culture, traditions, and values are preserved by returning our indigenous people to the land. This legislation will help build affordable homes and provide housing opportunities for eligible native Hawaiian families. Reauthorizing the act and re-establishing these rights are important steps in maintaining our government's relationship to the Hawaiian people"
Since funding was awarded in 2002, more than 450 homes have been built, acquired, or reconstructed and the program has provided training and technical assistance to more than 250 low-income families in self-help home repair, financial literacy, and home buying.
"While one decade of consistent funding is a very short period of time, the impact during that time is not only visible, it has created a new energy and enthusiasm for the possibilities in fulfilling the original promise of residential homesteading under the HHCA," said Robin Puanani Danner, President and CEO of the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement.
However, the lack of access to capital and complications stemming from mortgage financing on trust lands, have created obstacles in providing low income Hawaiian families with affordable housing.
"Approximately seventy-five percent of the open lands of the Hawaiian Home Lands trust remain undeveloped," said Ka'uhane. "One of the largest barriers to issuing land to the 26,000+ individuals on the waitlist is investment in infrastructure for roads, utilities, water/waste water facilities, broadband and renewable energy sources."
Witnesses concluded that with enactment of the Hawaiian Homeownership Opportunity Act, not only would funding be continued, but some barriers would be eliminated.
U.S. Representative Mazie K. Hirono said: "We must see that the Hawaiian Homeownership Opportunity Act is passed and signed into law by President Obama. This legislation would reauthorize critical programs that will help Native Hawaiian families and future generations realize the dream of homeownership in Hawaii."
U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Deputy Assistant Secretary for Native American Programs Rodger J. Boyd said: "S. 65, does not only increase housing opportunity on the Islands, but it increases access to capital and provides the opportunity to build stronger, more economically vibrant and self-sufficient communities."
Senator Inouye added, "It is my sincere hope that the dialogue we entered into the record today will help reinforce the historical and legal justification for essential Native Hawaiian programs, like housing, that benefit the indigenous people of Hawaii. It is only fair that we do all we can to provide for the people whose islands we call home."
In his concluding remarks, Chairman Akaka said, "I want to say a few words about my top legislative priority, U.S. Senate Bill 675, the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act. Native Hawaiians are the only federally-recognized Native people without a government-to-government relationship with the United States. My bill provides the Native Hawaiian people the same mechanisms of self-governance and self-determination that other Native peoples currently enjoy under existing federal law. Governmental parity for Native Hawaiians, American Indians, and Alaska Natives, all of the first nations of the United States, is pono. I will continue to work to ensure that the Native Hawaiian people have their right to self-governance honored."