Honolulu is located on the 600-square-mile island of Oahu, the third-largest and most populated island of the archipelago. The city’s 950,000 residents make up roughly 70 percent of the total state population, and though Oahu is home to some of Hawaii’s finest natural and commercial offerings, it is also representative of the manifold disparities faced by both the immigrant and indigenous populations.

Although the cost of living in Honolulu is technically lower than that of San Francisco or New York City, cost-of-living calculators fail to adjust for other costs associated with island economics, like a tax burden upped by state-provided education, health care, and social services. This is partly offset by a booming tourist economy, but islanders earning between $48,001 and $150,000 nonetheless pay up to 8.25 percent on their annual income. If you make $70,093—the median income for Oahu in 2010—$5,783 of that goes to the State.

In Honolulu, where the median household income is about $91,000, the need for affordable housing isn’t nearly as apparent as in Waianae, 34 miles to the west. Here, the median household income is $63,408, and 27 percent of its residents identify as Pacific Islander, compared to the eight percent living in Honolulu. It wasn’t hard for the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands (DHHL) to see that it had some work to do in Waianae. The answer, or at least one part of it, was Kaupuni Village.

“Kaupuni Village is one of our smaller developments, so we wanted to try something different with it,” says Kimo Kai, special assistant to the Office of the Chairman at the DHHL. In cooperation with local architecture firm Group 70 International, the planning team began to articulate plans for what would become the first LEED Platinum, net-zero housing subdivision in the country.

The LEED Platinum Kaupuni Village by the Department of Hawaiian Homelands offers subsidized housing that uses green features to help alleviate utility costs and provide healthful homes for Hawaii’s low-income families.

The Need for A HomeLand

The conditions of today’s Hawaiian natives have roots more than a hundred years old. By 1892, the entire social landscape of the Kingdom of Hawaii had been upended by a century of modernization and colonization. Americans saw opportunities for themselves in the annexation of the islands as a US territory. A coup in early 1893 set those wheels in motion.

As a US territory, Hawaii had some say in Congress, namely through a delegate, Prince Jonah Kuhio Kalaniana‘ole, who soon recognized the need for a policy to ensure the rights of the kanakas, Polynesian or Hawaiian natives. Kalaniana‘ole cultivated the idea of ‘Hawaiian Home Lands’ in 1898, a precedent that would award and reapportion tracts of Hawaiian land to the kanakas for posterity. Expounding on this idea, in 1921, the federal government officiated the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act (HHCA), the primary purpose of which was “to enable native Hawaiians to return to their lands in order to fully support self-sufficiency . . . and the preservation of the values, traditions, and culture of native Hawaiians.”

The act awarded roughly 313 square miles of land—five percent of Hawaii’s total land—to nontransferable native settlements in 61 separate census-designated zones throughout the islands. By the time Hawaii was officially inducted as an American state in 1959, however, federal and private entities illicitly occupied much of the acreage. And so, it wasn’t until the state created the DHHL in 1960 that it was able to effectively administer solutions and begin fulfilling its vital vision.

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A model of the standard Kaupuni home, complete with open-air living spaces, solar panels, and deep eaves. The design was done by Group 70 International.

Clotheslines for Kama’aina

The 3.5-acre site of the new housing development—an empty piece of land sitting a few shallow feet below the flood plain—previously was owned by the Consuelo Foundation, a nonprofit organization serving disadvantaged families in the Philippines and Hawaii. In 2004, the DHHL acquired the plot for a single dollar—with a single stipulation. “The one stipulation was that we use the site to build affordable housing for people 100 percent below median income,” Kai says. (To achieve certain tax breaks, the DHHL ultimately went with 80 percent and below median income.) To qualify for residency in Kaupuni, households need to make less than $65,920.

Prior to beginning vertical construction on Kaupuni, the DHHL moved hundreds of tons of coral and dirt on the site, raising foundation levels by up to five feet above the flood zone. After letting the new earth settle, DHHL began construction in 2010, and, not including the landscape, total cost for construction totaled $6 million. The four-bed/two-bath and three-bed/two-bath options sold for between $322,000 and $260,000 and were all occupied by Hawaiian natives by mid-2011. Federal subsidies helped prices reach as low as $212,000, compared with $559,000, the median value for occupied homes on Oahu.

Each home is stocked with Energy Star appliances, solar hot-water heaters, water-recycling systems, and 26 solar panels that provide 6.2 kilowatts of power per home. Hawaiian Electric provided monitors in each home to monitor in-home electrical usage. And the driveways for the homes are made of pervious concrete, which absorbs excess rainwater.

In addition to the community center, funded in part by Kamehameha Schools, one of Kaupuni’s 21 lots was left empty, to be used as an educational resource for the community. It will be used to teach residents how to build and maintain their own farms and gardens using aquaponic and hydroponic systems. In addition to promoting sustainable living and net-zero lifestyles, the mini-farm also corresponds to the greater mission of native self-sufficiency fostered by the DHHL. “In addition to the community garden,” Kai says, “we also provided each home with a cage on the exterior, which allows space for the residents to build and utilize their own aquaponics units.”

The locals, or kama’aina, were appreciative of the sustainable and cost-saving elements, but the design gesture most appreciated was Group 70’s decision to include space for clotheslines in the design. “It’s a small and seemingly insignificant detail, but it’s an important part of the Hawaiian culture, and a lot of new developments don’t allow for them,” Kai says. “It saves on money, and it’s a gesture of respect for the native community.

Sustaining the islands

It’s the big gestures and the small ones that make the DHHL’s ongoing commitment important for native Hawaiians. Receiving funding from state and federal subsidies, as well as private resources, the DHHL works to deliver on the mission for self-sufficiency set forth in the HHCA, though it has also spent considerable effort claiming new acreage and reclaiming illegitimately occupied Hawaiian Home Lands.

In an investigation partly fueled by efforts from the DHHL in the early 1980s, the State began to recognize the illegitimacy of various federal and private land holdings. In 1984, state and county orders transferring holdings away from the Hawaiian Home Lands were cancelled and 28,000 acres were returned to the trust. Consequently, the Hawaii State Act 14, passed in 1995, awarded $600 million payable in $30 million annual installments over 20 years to the trust for state accounting oversight between 1959 and 1988.

The Hawaiian Home Lands Recovery Act was also passed in 1995, which resolved Hawaii State claims against the US Navy. The act awarded the DHHL with $80 million in surplus federal land and also apportioned 950 additional acres to the DHHL holdings across the islands. Leveraging steady capital from the State Act and cooperating with the Hawaii State Department of Land and Natural Resources and the Housing and Community Development Corporation of Hawaii, the DHHL is able to develop old land as well as acquire new, habitable acreage in underrepresented areas like Kaupuni Village in Waianae.

Compared to the DHHL’s other projects—like the 49-lot subdivision in Kekaha, Kaua’i, or the 104-unit Villages of Leiali’i in Maui—Kaupuni Village is relatively small, but it encapsulates the fundamental and ongoing mission of the DHHL. “Around 80 people live in Kaupuni, and many of them are children,” Kai says. “They’re learning about these sustainable building and living systems firsthand and are then able to share these ideas throughout the community. This is what DHHL is all about.”

As Hawaii’s population continues to grow, services for the native and underrepresented populations will continue to be vital for ensuring the quality of life and the continuity of a culture which, if left untended, would be lost in the economic and commercial wilds of modernization. By innovating affordable housing alternatives and providing sustainable living solutions, organizations like the DHHL are working to preserve native Hawaii, one home at a time.