DHHL, Spend Your Money!

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The Department of Hawaiian Home Lands (DHHL) administers about 200,000 acres of public lands to be leased to native Hawaiians, upon which they may live, farm, ranch, and engage in commercial or other activities.  The department, led by a nine-member commission, must provide financial and technical assistance to native Hawaiians (those with at least 50 percent Hawaiian blood), which enables them to enhance their economic self-sufficiency and promote community-based development.  According to the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act of 1920, by doing this, the traditions, culture, and quality of life of native Hawaiians will be self-sustaining.  In practice, however, moving native Hawaiians to homestead lands has been an agonizingly slow process.  The Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement reported that the list of Native Hawaiians awaiting homestead land leases has been growing steadily from nearly 26,000 in 2010 to more than 28,700 today.  It’s no exaggeration to say that scores of Hawaiians have died on the wait list.

Back in 2015, we wrote about agencies that received federal grants but were unable or unwilling to spend the money.  DHHL was listed at that time as having $55 million in federal housing funds awarded for Native Hawaiians but unspent, resulting in HUD suspending additional funding.

House Bill 2511 and its companion Senate Bill 3359 in this year’s Legislature propose to provide a historic amount of funding, $600 million, to DHHL.  If enacted, this would be the single largest state or federal investment in the program in any one year in the 100-year history of the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act.  The bill currently has great support in both chambers of the Legislature. 

We want to make sure that DHHL will be able to use the money for their mission.  Some statistics on their website, however, make us concerned.

The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) provides a Native Hawaiian Housing Block Grant program.  DHHL is the sole recipient of such grants.  In 2014, DHHL was sitting on about $55 million in federal funds unspent, as a result of which HUD stopped providing additional funding in 2016.  Recent news reports say that the federal money is still not flowing.  DHHL’s website, http://dhhl.hawaii.gov/nahasda/, shows its current grant status:

201414HBGHI0001$9,700,000$7,736,927.94 (80%) expended
201515HBGHI0001$8,700,000$59,575.66 (0.007%) expended
2016 0No federal appropriations
201717HBGHI0001$2,000,000No expenditures/encumbrances
201818HBGHI0001$2,000,000 No expenditures/encumbrances
201919HBGHI0001$2,000,000 No expenditures/encumbrances

It’s 2022, and the agency is still working on 2014 and 2015 money.  We need to understand the problems that are preventing this money from doing some good here in Hawaii.  We can’t throw a great deal more money at it blindly.

When these statistics were presented to the Legislature, DHHL was motivated to respond to us by saying that the block grant funds were all obligated, and that the available balance of block grant funds was slightly over $14 million.  They also noted that the U.S. Treasury recognized DHHL as a high performing grantee in expending funds for rental assistance provided through the Consolidated Appropriations Act. 

Just to be clear, we are not at all opposing a historic level of funding for DHHL.  We just want to make sure the money is put to good use and does not languish.  So, we need to understand the operational challenges and we need to address them directly if we want to do the most good.

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