Star Advertiser | August 10, 2016
By Andrew Gomes
Rosalyn Vasques has a wish to return to her childhood home, which once was part of a pineapple plantation in Kunia.
The historic community long known as Kunia Camp or Kunia Village is still rural. Some of the homes are 100 years old and falling down. But thanks to a nonprofit effort backed by millions of dollars in federal funding, Vasques has an opportunity to return.
The nonprofit Hawaii Agriculture Research Center on Tuesday blessed the first of what will be 82 renovated or new homes made available at affordable rents to low-income farmworkers.
All 82 homes are scheduled to be finished by February and will be reserved for farmworkers earning no more than 60 percent of the median household income for Honolulu, which equates to $42,240 for a single person, $48,240 for a couple or $60,300 for a family of four.
Monthly rental rates haven’t been set yet for the residences, which range from 630-square-foot homes with two bedrooms to 1,300-square-foot homes with four bedrooms, according to management firm EAH Housing. But under government guidelines the rates shouldn’t be more than $1,357 for the two-bedroom homes to $1,749 for the four-bedroom homes.
What’s more is that a U.S. Department of Agriculture rural development program will subsidize any portion of monthly rent that exceeds 30 percent of a tenant’s household monthly income.
“This is a fine moment,” said U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono, who grew up on a rice farm in Japan and helped build federal support for the $40 million Kunia project. “When I look at this housing, it brings back to me the struggles of people who just want to be able to work hard, support their families and live in housing that is affordable to them — and we all came together to make that happen.”
Dave Robichaux, president of the HARC subsidiary Kunia Village Title Holding Co., which is redeveloping the former plantation camp, said hundreds of people helped make the project happen, including financial partners, planners, contractors, government officials and HARC Executive Director Stephanie Whalen.
“With our efforts here today and leading up to today, with any luck my successor will be standing here in another 100 years and saying how this is (Hawaii’s) last plantation village that is still operating in a traditional sense,” he said.
The restoration of Kunia Village — which includes 121 homes, farmland, a church, a U.S. post office, a community center, a neighborhood store, warehouses, offices and a wastewater treatment plant — has been in the works for six years. It began after the owner of the 119-acre property, James Campbell Co., donated the village to HARC in 2009.
Kunia Camp dates to 1910 and was part of a pineapple plantation operated by California Packing Co., which later became Del Monte. The first homes were built in 1916, and the community is listed on the state and national registers of historic places.
Del Monte quit growing pineapple in Hawaii in 2007 and laid off 551 workers. As part of its exit, the company was required to remove village buildings before surrendering its lease and returning the land to Campbell. However, the city helped broker a deal to save the homes where many Del Monte workers and retirees lived.
In the deal, Campbell got credit for providing 115 affordable homes it otherwise would need to produce at its planned Makaiwa Hills subdivision in West Oahu, and HARC agreed to keep the homes affordable for agricultural workers and retirees.
Yet the age and condition of the homes presented a challenge to HARC, which is primarily engaged in crop research.
The nonprofit arranged a dizzying stack of financing, including tax credits and bonds from a state agency called Hawaii Housing Finance and Development Corp., tax credits from the U.S. Department of Interior, a loan and rent subsidies from USDA, and loans from private lenders.
Total project cost at one point was estimated to be around $16 million but became more costly in part because homes that could be reasonably renovated couldn’t be demolished as historic properties. That meant restoring some homes where replacement made more economic sense. The average cost per home is close to $490,000. New infrastructure for the village — including water, sewer and electrical systems — is a big part of the expense.
In the first phase with 82 homes, 37 will be new while still resembling plantation-style housing, and 45 will be restored. Renovation work includes repairs to termite-ridden foundations, floors and walls. There also will be new wiring, paint, roofing, light fixtures, appliances, cabinets, countertops, sinks, toilets, showers and tubs.
After the project is completed, HARC hopes to slowly renovate the remaining homes and expand the community to 200 from 121 residences over the next 20 to 30 years.
One downside to the project was that some residents had to move out and aren’t able to return because they don’t meet the income limits or qualify as farmworkers.
EAH Housing is accepting applications and expects to have about 60 homes available for qualified households.
However, Del Monte retirees who were living at Kunia Village when the company shut down can live their lives out in the village. Also, some former Del Monte workers and others who earn too much to qualify for the 82 homes were able to stay in homes outside the first phase.
Richard Simbre, 64, worked for Del Monte until the shutdown, driving tractor-trailers, and was born in Kunia Village where he still lives in one of the homes outside the initial phase of work. “A lot of the old-timers left,” he said.
Vasques, a former neighbor of Simbre who also was born in the village but moved out as a teenager in the 1990s, views the redevelopment and availability of affordable housing as an opportunity to return.
“That’s my wish,” said the 33-year-old. “I live Wahiawa but I dream of Kunia.”
Vasques, who packed pineapples for Del Monte until 2004, is now a manager and driver for Papa John’s Pizza. She said she is going to look for a farm job in hopes that her family can live amid active farms off Kunia Road like she did.
On Tuesday Vasques visited the home where she grew up and saw the renovation work in progress. “It’s going to be beautiful,” she said.