What Can Happen When the People Put Their Heads and Hearts Together
Gregg K. Kakesako
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
“We built it!”
It took Hawai‘i businessman Duane Kurisu just six months and one day to develop Kahauiki Village — a public-private housing project that is fulfilling his dream “to build a community,” not just a shelter for O‘ahu’s homeless.
Last summer, there was nothing on the 11.3-acre parcel makai (oceanside) of Nimitz Highway, just east of the Honolulu airport. No roads, no sewers, no electricity, no water — just weeds, shrubbery, a homeless encampment and a paintball field near Ke‘ehi Lagoon.
Today, a black asphalt road surrounds the $12.4 million Phase One compound consisting of 30 prefab housing units — 18 two-bedroom homes and 12 one-bedroom homes — plus, a community center and a police workstation. A childcare center, a preschool and a sundry store were also built on the site to support the 51 adult residents and their 64 children.
Work on the remaining 120 prefab units designed to house another 620 adults and children is expected to begin soon.
Kurisu describes Kahauiki Village as the first community effort, nationwide, to build more than just a homeless shelter, as it will make available support services on-site for all of the residents, the adults as well as the children. He noted also that Kahauiki Village is powered by “a clean-energy power system, which is a first in the world,” relying on solar power and back-up generators.
At the Jan. 12 blessing ceremony, Kurisu said his biggest commitment was to try to build a community with permanent housing, relying on the donations of materials and sweat from nearly 100 businesses, community organizations and individuals.
“This is what can happen when Hawai‘i puts their heads together with heart, with mind, with resources, without any expectation for personal gain,” said Kurisu in prepared remarks. “So many of us have put our ‘all’ into Kahauiki Village so that we can leave a better world for our children and grandchildren, and children and grandchildren of others . . . A dignified world . . . One filled with love, hopes and dreams.”
Tears of joy flowed from many who attended the formal opening, from developer Kurisu; to Connie Mitchell, executive director of the Institute for Human Services; to new resident Nohealani Ching, a 29-year-old single mom who said her three children now have a place they can call home. “This is their house,” said Ching.
Calling it a “historic day,” Mitchell said she “can’t stop smiling.” Mitchell said she believes Kurisu’s approach will help the families “become self-sufficient and break the cycle of homelessness.”
Construction on Phase One began last July.
Kahauiki Village involved the state and city governments, the military and the nonprofit and business community, which donated building supplies; concrete; appliances; and plumbing, electrical and landscape supplies and services. The city leased the 11.3-acre parcel to Kurisu’s nonprofit aio Foundation for 10 years at $1 at year with an option to renew for an additional 10 years.
On the weekend before the scheduled Jan. 12 formal opening, student athletes from ‘Iolani, Punahou and Pearl City High schools were out at Kahauiki, helping to landscape the area around the housing units while technicians from PhotonWorks finished installing solar rooftop panels.
Other former Hawai‘i athletes, including ‘Iolani alum Dane Arakawa, who now plays professional football in Italy; Christian Donahue, former ‘Iolani School and Oregon State University baseball standout who was drafted by the Chicago Cubs; Iolana Akau, Saint Louis School stellar baseball player, now with the Oakland Athletics; and Tanner Nishioka, who was recently drafted by the Boston Red Sox after playing for ‘Iolani School and Pomona College, joined the band of volunteers. They later met with Kurisu, who is a part-owner of the San Francisco Giants baseball team. All left with a white T-shirt emblazoned with the words Kahauiki Village and its logo in the front and the inspiring words, “WE BUILT IT!” on the back.
On Jan. 12, the residents received the keys to their new homes after the blessing ceremony, which was attended by Gov. David Ige and Mayor Kirk Caldwell. In 2015, Ige signed emergency proclamations transferring the Ke‘ehi Lagoon site to the city, increasing funding for homeless programs and streamlining the permitting process. Caldwell then leased the land to Kurisu’s aio Foundation for 10 years and spent $4 million to provide sewer and water lines.
“Duane was very persistent in getting their (community) participation in this project,” said Ige. “Duane said this is the first time ever that he’s been involved with a project where no one who he asked for help said ‘no.’ This truly is such an example of how when we work together, we can do great things.”
Since launching the project, Kurisu said he has been approached by several Mainland organizations seeking his advice on ways to address the issue of homelessness.
He is quick to point out that his vision was never “to just build (homeless) shelters,” but rather to create a community in which families could become self-sufficient through a coordinated and collaborative approach that provides at-risk families the help they need when they need it most to manage their finances and raise their children.
Kurisu believes the 30 families who just moved in represent about 11 percent of O‘ahu’s homeless families. The goal is to try to alleviate the disparity between income and the high cost of living in the Islands.
The adult residents must be working and able to pay the subsidized rent, said Kimo Carvalho, community relations director for the Institute for Human Services, which will help manage Kahauiki Village. Institute for Human Services executive director Connie Mitchell said the residents are now holding jobs ranging from barista work in a coffee shop, to waiters, to working construction on the Honolulu rail project. “Working is an integral part of their lives,” Mitchell said.
“These are people who have fallen on hard times and they needed a little help to get back on their feet,” Carvalho added. “Just because they are homeless, that does not mean they are more susceptible to evictions. It does not mean that they have a criminal record or background. It does not mean they are incapable of self-governance.”
All of the families were required to complete transitional programs at social service agencies such as IHS, the Salvation Army, Catholic Charities, Family Promise, U.S. Vets Waianae Civic Center Pai‘olu Shelter and Weinberg Village Waimanalo before being eligible to apply as tenants at Kahauiki Village. Kahauiki will be managed jointly by Newmark Grubb/CBI, a commercial real estate company, and the Institute for Human Services. Newmark Grubb/CBI will maintain the buildings and collect the rent, and IHS will provide on-site tenant management services and support a resident council.
Carvalho said all of the applicants were subjected to background checks to ensure that none of the residents are sex offenders or had criminal convictions that were predatory in nature.
The rules and governance of Kahauiki Village will eventually be turned over to a tenants resident council, he said.
“If you are violating the terms of your lease, or not paying rent or doing anything that harms the village, you will be evicted,” Carvalho emphasized. “We are really trying to promote self-responsibility, self-sufficiency and developing behaviors that are conducive to building the family structure and building their capacity to move or graduate into other type of housing options, like home ownership.”
Once a wasteland where the Maunalua and Kalihi streams empty into Ke‘ehi Lagoon, Kahauiki Village is today a small community that Kurisu says “. . . will allow families to live with dignity and will let children dream of a life without boundaries and limitations.”
Last month, a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development report said Hawai‘i continues to lead the nation with the highest per capita rate of homelessness. Even with efforts to reduce Hawai‘i’s homeless population by 9 percent over a year ago, the state’s rate of 51 homeless people for every 10,000 individuals is the worst in the nation, followed by New York, Oregon, California and Washington.
The 2017 Hawai‘i Statewide Homeless point in time survey estimated that there are 4,959 homeless individuals on O‘ahu, with about 284 homeless families living in transitional housing.
Mitchell said Kahauiki Village is the model for families that want to get ahead. IHS estimates that 54 percent of the homeless families currently in transitional housing will eventually move to Kahauiki, freeing up more units for others. IHS also runs the state’s largest transitional homeless shelter in Iwilei, as well as the city’s Hale Mauliola homeless village on Sand Island, which is made from refurbished shipping containers.
“We want to give these families the opportunity to learn new skills,” Mitchell said. “We want to inspire people to make it on their own. It’s a starter.”
Kurisu is a commercial real estate investor and the founder and chairman of aio, the parent company of a family of printing, publications, technology, sports and food companies. Kurisu’s enterprises include Honolulu sports radio stations ESPN 1420 AM and 1500 AM; Watermark Publishing; and Hawaii Business, Honolulu and Hawaii magazines. The 63-year-old sansei drew on his experiences growing up in the sugar plantation town of Hakalau on the Big Island’s Hämäkua Coast.
During one of his many trips out to the site in November, Kurisu surveyed one of the two-bedroom units, recalling with a smile, “This is about the size of my plantation home where my father and mother raised five kids.”
Kurisu organized a consortium of contractors, consultants, businesses and individuals over the past year to build the first phase of Kahauiki Village. Other organizations volunteered on weekends, working alongside professionals, painting, installing windows and sidings and landscaping the grounds of Kahauiki.
Kurisu envisions building about 153 modular units in all for homeless families. He purchased the prefabricated houses from the Japanese industrial company Komatsu, which built them as emergency housing for survivors of the 2011 Töhöku earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident. Kurisu bought the units after raising more than $1 million in disaster relief for the Fukushima victims.
Architect Lloyd Sueda modified the units, adding sloping rooflines to give them a look similar to the houses found in Hawai‘i’s old sugar plantation communities. Most of the material was donated and the labor was performed voluntarily. For example, crews from Coastal Construction donated their labor and assembled the prefab units. RMY, the general contractor, laid the foundation for the homes and installed the village’s water, gas, electrical and sewer lines and roads. HPM Building Supply donated all of the roofs for the homes, the childcare center and preschool, the convenience store and other auxiliary structures.
Kurisu said he is amazed at the commitment of so many businesses, organizations and individuals.
On the day before Thanksgiving, roofers from Action Roofing Hawaii showed up at the jobsite, offering their labor for free. A grateful Kurisu wrote to Bobby Anderson, the company’s president: “On this day, we reflect upon all the things for which we are thankful. When I saw roofers on the houses yesterday and after hearing about your gracious gift of labor to put the roof over the heads for future families at Kahauiki Village, I had to hold back my tears. As you know, we were stuck because the commitment from the original roofer could not be fulfilled. Then you showed up, unannounced . . . . Nobody asked you or your wife to do this. You and your wife are doing this from the purity of your hearts.”
When Kurisu thought he didn’t have enough roofers to complete the project, Guy Akisaki, president and chief operating officer of Commercial Roofing & Waterproofing Hawaii, stepped up to help.
“It was an opportunity to give back to the community,” said Akisaki, who also is on the boards of the Salvation Army and the Children’s Discovery Center.
“I wanted to create the synergy, so other people would see what was being done and jump in,” he said. Akisaki donated the time of more than a dozen of his roofers to top off about 20 housing units.
The total cost for Phase One was $12.4 million, with the city providing $4 million to install the main water and sewer lines for the project. Another $2 million was spent on a photovoltaic and battery system that will enable Kahauiki Village to operate almost completely off the grid.
Kahauiki Village residents will pay up to $900 rent a month for a two-bedroom home and $725 for a one-bedroom unit. The rent includes water, gas, electricity, cable television and Wi-Fi and also covers maintenance of common areas.
The new community will be the first energy microgrid system that will operate almost completely off the electrical grid, according to PhotonWorks founder Tim Johnson. PhotonWorks is a design-build general contractor specializing in electrical- and energy-related projects. The 30 homes in Phase One will be fueled by as many as 490 solar panels mounted on the units and on the ground. Three Tesla batteries, each capable of storing 210 kilowatts of electricity, will serve as emergency backups, along with liquid gas propane generators. The surplus energy generated by the solar panels will be stored in a modular battery system.
“No one has a done a lone microgrid system, so we are learning,” Johnson said, adding that the microgrid system was chosen because it is cost-efficient and saves the project money. Other alternatives were considered during the planning phase, but they were rejected due to their costs.
Each home is equipped with an 80-gallon solar water heater; kitchen cabinets donated by Ohana Building Supply; a 10-cubic inch refrigerator and a 20-inch gas range from Servco Home and Appliance; and a stainless steel kitchen sink and faucet from Ferguson Enterprises. Ferguson also donated toilets, shower stalls and basins for all of the units. City Mill provided the medicine cabinets. Commercial Plumbing donated plumbing installation and gas piping services. About 40 of its employees volunteered their time on Saturdays to install the plumbing.
The centerpiece of Kahauiki Village, however, is jobs — jobs within walking distance that will enable the residents to work and provide a steady and stable life for their families. Kurisu inquired with nearby businesses such as United Laundry Services, Lion Coffee and Y. Hata & Co. about the availability of jobs — all came through with commitments to hire and train the residents who sought jobs with them.
“There are other people on Sand Island and the airport that have offered jobs,” Kurisu added. “Even the contractors working on the job said they will hire some of the homeless adults and put them in their apprentice program — construction, plumbing, civil work. And the latest one is the ChefZone.”
ChefZone is a cash-and-carry wholesale club located near the airport. It is operated by sansei Russell Hata, who is also chairman of his family’s food distribution business, Y. Hata & Co. ChefZone is a stand-alone, 45,000-square-foot operation on Ualena Street, near the airport, that carries items needed by a chef or restaurant owner.
Stevette Santiago, Y. Hata’s chief administrative officer, said the company planned to hold workshops after the families moved in to Kahauiki. The workshops are aimed at helping the residents develop their resume, prepare for job interviews, conduct job training, and even help them find jobs at Y. Hata and ChefZone.
“It will be tailored to each individual to build their confidence . . . and to the right glide path,” said Santiago.
Besides jobs, one of the goals of Kahauiki Village is to end the cycle of homelessness by setting the children on the right path and creating lasting benefits for them, said Ryan Kusumoto, president and CEO of the Kalihi-based Parents and Children Together. PACT, a nonprofit family service agency with a 50-year history in Hawai‘i, was selected to run Kahauiki Village’s licensed daycare and preschool facility so that their parents can work.
According to the state, an estimated 3,000 children — preschool through grade 12 — are currently homeless or live in an unstable housing situation. Without early childhood education programs, many of the children will be two years behind their peers when they enter school.
Kusumoto said PACT will have six professionals on-site at Kahauiki to support 36 children initially and provide free support services to the residents. He said the center will provide “a safe and nurturing environment,” which people often take for granted.
Kusumoto says Kahauiki Village will provide youngsters with the “critical pieces” they need — “combining the positive environment and those positive experiences for those children so their foundation is set for a lifetime.”
Kahauiki Village will be shielded from noisy Nimitz Highway by a 6-foot high, 600-foot-long rock wall whose construction is being donated by Central Pacific Bank chairman John Dean. Kukui nut trees will be planted along the wall, and the Rotary Club of Honolulu has committed to planting another 100 canopy trees and palms around the village.
Additionally, 75 Rotary Club members, led by Signe Godfrey, spent a Saturday in December cleaning windows, painting and scrubbing the concrete floors to prepare the units for their new residents. They were joined by 40 young executives who work in commercial real estate and development. “It’s really nice to work together in this community project to help people who need it the most,” said the group’s leader Stephanie Hsu.
The units were also furnished with items donated by the Rotary Club of Honolulu and other organizations — items such as beds, dining sets, dishes and cooking appliances, toasters, rice cookers, linens, fans and a few other essentials. Natalatu Linn, district governor for 1,700 Rotarians, said her O‘ahu members were asked to collect donations of such household items as shampoo, toiletries and shower curtains.
A community garden where residents can grow vegetables for their own use is also being developed at Kahauiki Village, said Kurisu. The garden is being overseen by Steve Kai, a retired Big Island agricultural expert who said he shares Kurisu’s dream of building a community patterned after the old sugar plantation camps.
Kai, who retired after 20 years as Ka‘ü Sugar Company’s field manager, was raised in a Big Island plantation camp in Pähala. All of the plantation camps had gardens in which the residents raised vegetables or livestock such as pigs and goats, he recalls. “There was always sharing of the products and no one went hungry back in those days,” the 66-year-old Kai said.
Kai plans to start with a 15- by 20-foot demonstration plot and has enlisted volunteers from the University of Hawai‘i Garden Center and the master gardener program in Pearl City, Hartung Brothers, Monsanto Hawaii and the Department of Education’s Future Farmers of America program. Kalani High School’s FFA chapter has been growing kalo (taro), which will be transplanted into Kahauiki’s community gardens.
“We are planning to provide individual plots for residents to grow vegetables as well as install a fruit orchard for the residents,” said Kai. “We are hoping that we could eventually have a small farmer’s market, also.”
A laundry room with coin-operated washers and dryers will be located on the site. Sufficient yard space between the buildings will allow the tenants to hang their clothes out to dry as an alternative to using the commercial dryers. The Honolulu Police Department is also being given office space in Kahauiki.
Kurisu is looking forward to the day when all six phases of Kahauiki Village are completed. Work on the remaining five phases will begin within a few months.
RMY Construction head Russell Yamamoto, the project’s general contractor, said he decided to get involved in helping to building Kahauiki Village to make life better for the children.
His goal was echoed by Parents and Children Together president Ryan Kusumoto. “From zero to age five are the most critical times in a child’s life for development,” Kusumoto emphasized. “If we can get those kids and provide for them the education, socialization, interaction and introduction to all those things that homeless families don’t get . . . We are about transforming a future generation so they can get the right start.”
If you would like to support the Kahauiki Village effort, monetary donations can be mailed to: aio Foundation, 1000 Bishop St., Suite 202, Honolulu, HI 96813.
Gregg K. Kakesako worked for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, Gannett News Service and the Honolulu Star-Advertiser for more than four decades as a government, political and military affairs reporter and assistant city editor.