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Native Hawaiians to get federal housing money - finally

WASHINGTON - Forty years after their state was admitted to the union, it appears Native Hawaiians finally will get federal housing assistance.

As part of an omnibus housing bill passed in the last days of the lame-duck Congress, Native Hawaiians will be eligible for federal housing money through a system that parallels the way American Indians and Alaska Natives get funds through the Native American Housing Assistance and Self Determination Act (NAHASDA).

President Clinton was poised to sign the bill before leaving office, and the only remaining obstacle is getting an authorization of funds -potentially $30 million for fiscal year 2002, says Christopher Boesen, executive director of the National American Indian Housing Council.

The money will go for affordable housing assistance on Native Hawaiian homelands - 200,000 acres of land on five of the state's islands, put in trust for Indigenous populations 80 years ago and mainly neglected since then.

Congress found that a staggering 95 percent of those eligible to live on the homelands - 13,000 people - are in need of housing.

Boesen says a controversial 50 percent blood quantum applies, but added there is some wiggle room, as descendants of those on the homelands since 1920 are eligible even if their quanta are lower.

Native Hawaiians have been eligible to participate in general federal housing assistance programs, but have had no program specifically targeted to them.

Although technically separate from NAHASDA, the program, to be administered by the Department of Hawaiian Homelands, bears much resemblance to landmark legislation for mainland and Alaska Natives.

Its language acknowledges Native sovereignty and self-determination and encourages leveraging federal money with private lenders.

Boesen said much of the land set aside in 1920 is not very valuable, but there is some with income-producing leases on the islands of Oahu and Hawaii.

Housing costs in Hawaii are among the highest in the nation and the Native homelands suffer from a lack of existing infrastructure.

The DHHL will receive a block grant it can use in any way it wants to finance affordable housing for Native Hawaiians.

The "findings" of Congress published in the bill (HR 5640) on the housing needs of Native Hawaiians are stark. It found that Hawaiian Indigenous populations "continue to have the greatest unmet need for housing and the highest rates of overcrowding in the United States."

Almost half - 49 percent - of Native Hawaiian households have housing problems, Congress found - compared to 27 percent nationally and 44 percent for American Indians and Alaska Natives. Overcrowding is a problem in 36 percent of households, compared to the national average of 3 percent.

Seventy percent of eligible Natives are below the median income, and a full half is below 30 percent of median, the federal threshold for "very low income."

Boesen declared that provisions of the omnibus bill, added to the increase in NAHASDA funding to $650 million for 2001, represent "the best year ever" for Indian housing.

In addition to the Hawaiian funding, the legislation:

* Amended NAHASDA to clarify tribal due process rights.

* Allowed waivers of local cooperation agreements on fair housing grounds (local governments often refuse to sign these agreements, holding up developments).

* Gave tribes the ability to pre-empt Davis-Bacon prevailing wage requirements. Boesen said these requirements, setting wages on federal construction projects, have never been waived before for anyone, translating into a victory for tribal sovereignty. They often add 10 percent or more to the cost of a project in Indian country, he said - meaning the same funds that used to be able to build 10 houses now can build 11.

Indian provisions of the omnibus bill were introduced by Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo., Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, and Rep. Rick Lazio, R-N.Y.