- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 3, 2016

HONOLULU (AP) - Hawaii lawmakers are considering a bill to reduce the blood-ancestry requirement for Native Hawaiians to receive Hawaiian homesteads from relatives.

Right now, Hawaiian homestead beneficiaries can only transfer land to descendants who are at least 25 percent Hawaiian. The bill would lower the requirement to 1/32nd Hawaiian.

Under the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act of 1920, those with at least 50 percent Hawaiian blood can receive 99-year homestead leases for $1 per year. There are more than 27,000 applicants on the program’s waitlist.

This proposal comes at a time when Hawaii has the highest rate of homelessness per-capita in the nation. State data shows Native Hawaiians made up about one-fifth of unsheltered homeless in Hawaii in 2014.

Rep. Lynn DeCoite said she introduced the bill to help leaseholders’ descendants stay on family land, regardless of whether they marry non-Hawaiians. “As a beneficiary or a Native Hawaiian, you’re going to take care of your place if you know your child will inherit it or succeed it,” she said.

DeCoite said that if families can’t give the land to their children or grandchildren, they sometimes sell the land to the highest bidder on the waitlist. That can be unfair for those with lower incomes, she said.

But other lawmakers had concerns that the bill would disadvantage applicants on the waitlist who might be in greater financial need for land.

“The beneficiaries aren’t the entire group of stakeholders, and people on the wait-list often go unaccounted for because they tend to not be as organized,” said Rep. Kaniela Ing, chair of the Ocean, Marine Resources, & Hawaiian Affairs Committee that passed the bill Wednesday.

Ing said he wants to uphold the original intent of the 1920 law to help Native Hawaiians in need. Some Native Hawaiians who have held leases for generations might be at a greater financial advantage and might not have the same need for the land than those on waitlists, he said.

“I generally don’t want to take homesteads away from Hawaiians regardless how much income you make,” Ing said. “After a couple generations of building generational wealth, I feel like maybe it’s fair to give it up to other Hawaiians.”

Ing said he wants the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands to survey its beneficiaries to see if any would be willing to give land up to those on the waitlist.

Department of Hawaiian Home Lands Deputy Director William Aila Jr. said the department plans to address whether leaseholders should be able to sell land to other eligible applicants.

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