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Leadership: Homeward Bound

by Elizabeth Blish Hughes

Fall 2004


Homeownership is a dream delayed for many Native Hawaiians, whose incomes lag far behind other state residents. Yet in the past few years, Kehaulani Filimoe’atu, above left, and Blossom Feiteira, longtime rights activists, have begun to change this, especially on their native Maui, where many Hawaiians are homeless or living in overcrowded conditions.

The U.S. Congress recognized housing as a critical issue for native islanders when it set aside 200,000 acres as “home lands” in 1920. Yet thousands of Native Hawaiians have been frustrated by bureaucratic procedures that have kept them from accessing this communal land. Many have languished on a decades-long waiting list of some 20,000 names. What’s worse, when offered land, most can’t obtain financing to build a home.

In 2000, after discussing this problem with community elders, Filimoe’atu and Feiteira founded Hawaiian Community Assets, which prequalifies people for loans through an outreach program. Feiteira teaches mortgage and money management classes for people whose culture had little notion of individual land ownership or financial knowledge. “A house helps families stabilize,” she says.

But even when people qualified for financing on paper, lenders shied away from the home lands: without owned land as collateral, few saw profit in the loans. In response, Filimoe’atu and Feiteira formed Hawaii Community Lending, the state’s first nonprofit mortgage broker. Now they match clients with commercial and government lending programs.

Filimoe’atu and Feiteira’s persistence has paid off. When they started, only 225 families had homesteaded in the previous 80 years. Since 2002, thanks to their efforts, nearly twice the number of families have gained homes in Maui. Now 431 homesteading families either occupy or have started to build homes. In recognition of their leadership, Filimoe’atu and Feiteira shared a 2003 Ford Foundation Leadership for a Changing World award.

At their urging, the state’s Department of Hawaiian Home Lands has sped up the building of roads and sewers as well as the rate at which officials distribute homesteads. Filimoe’atu and Feiteira have also built bridges to communities that had objected to nearby homesteads because it meant “too many Hawaiians” in the neighborhood. They have developed a reputation for leading by listening.

Moreover, Filimoe’atu and Feiteira have managed to make significant headway by approaching a seemingly intractable problem from a number of directions. Their next step is to establish a Hawaiian-owned bank that would not only offer mortgages but also finance small businesses.