By Mark Adams, Maui News Staff Writer
WAILUKU — In 1954, Elizabeth W. Yabui was living on Molokai and turned in her first application for a homestead lot to the state Department of Hawaiian Home Lands.
Decades later, after a series of delays, mistakes and misinformation, she’s still on the list. But Yabui says now, at 68 and a single senior citizen living on a fixed income, she doesn’t believe she can qualify for a home loan even if a homestead property were available.
“It’s too late,” she said.
Yabui and other DHHL beneficiaries with grievances over how their homestead applications have been handled are banding together in a class-action lawsuit against the state. About two dozen gathered Wednesday at the Cameron Center to discuss the case with representatives of the Native Hawaiian Legal Corp.
The plaintiffs are suing for individual damages they have suffered because of alleged mismanagement of the Hawaiian Homes trust.
At the center of the lawsuit are claims that were earlier filed with the Hawaiian Homes Trust Individual Claims Review Panel.
The panel was charged with addressing claims like Yabui’s, but in 1999 Gov. Ben Cayetano vetoed a bill that would have given the ICRP a year to finish processing the cases before it.
The claims filed with the ICRP are now in limbo, and they are the subject of the lawsuit. The suit is being challenged by the state in a case now before the Hawaii Supreme Court, but the informational workshops are continuing.
Attorneys Tom Grande, Stan Levin and Carl Varady filed the class-action lawsuit, with the Native Hawaiian Legal Corp. holding meetings across the state to inform DHHL beneficiaries of their rights.
Two meetings were held Thursday at the Cameron Center in Wailuku, and two are scheduled for 10 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at Kalaiakamanu Hou Church on Molokai.
Melissa Seu, a staff attorney with the Native Hawaiian Legal Corp., said many claimants don’t know they may be entitled to damages. She and paralegals Jade Danner and Ike Ka’aihue are helping to spread the word and register claimants, who will have one-on-one interviews to assess their claims.
The suit seeks compensation for out-of-pocket expenses claimants have paid over the years — like rent and mortgage payments — because of the DHHL’s failure to properly address their cases.
Seu said some claimants had their homestead applications improperly rejected. Some were told they couldn’t apply because they were not married, which was incorrect. Others were told they could apply, but their spouse could not, also incorrect.
Some were not given enough time to prove they were of at least 50 percent Native Hawaiian ancestry, the “blood quantum” required under the 1921 Hawaiian Homes Commission Act. Others were even told they could not apply because they did not “look” Hawaiian, Seu said.
Some claimants actually received a lot lease from the DHHL, but infrastructure was never provided and they could not build a home. Others received a home, but poor workmanship caused construction defects as in a Molokai case where cabinets fell off the wall.
And in one case in Hilo, a DHHL beneficiary had her house severely damaged by fire. The damage was fixed, but DHHL representatives, who said they didn’t know of the repairs, had the home bulldozed with all of the woman’s possessions inside, Seu said.
Elvin Kamoku of Maui has been waiting for a homestead lease since the 1980s and had to purchase a home for his wife and two children.
He is now waiting for a homestead lot which has yet to be released by the DHHL. He hopes to recoup some of the money he had to spend for housing while waiting.
“It’s the plague of DHHL,” he said. “They cannot accelerate the program enough to get all of the people on the land.”
Kamoku said it has been a frustrating process for Native Hawaiians waiting for homesteads they are entitled to under the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act, signed into law in 1921 and setting aside some 200,000 acres of government land for homesteading by Native Hawaiians.
“But we create our own destiny,” he said. “We have to deal with what we have.”
The class-action lawsuit covers claims that were filed with the ICRP between 1991, when it was created, and Aug. 31, 1995.
Under the parameters set up by the state, the claims review panel looked at harms suffered only between the years 1959, when Hawaii became a state, and 1988.
It is estimated that there were 2,752 claims filed with the ICRP, and Seu said many of those claimants may not know of the pending class-action lawsuit.
In Yabui’s case, she was earlier told by the review panel that she was entitled to recoup several years of mortgage payments she had made for a property she and a former husband had bought, because of incorrect handling of her homestead application.
But Yabui said she is now philosophical about ever seeing any money after decades of being denied a DHHL lease.
“We were upset, but what are you going to do?” she said. “Let the Lord decide.”
Anyone seeking more information or who wants to register as a claimant may call the Native Hawaiian Legal Corp. at 545-2650 on Oahu, Seu said.