Building a Better Kaua‘i One Home at a Time

Thanks to the generosity of scores of volunteers, both local and from the Mainland, Kaua‘i Habitat for Humanity is busy providing affordable new homes

Twenty years have passed since Hurricane ‘Iniki pummeled the Garden Isle on Sept. 11, 1992. The storm’s aggressive fists battered the island, causing catastrophic damage.

An outpouring of compassion swept across the nation, leading to some $500,000 in donations to Habitat International, which led to the inauguration of Kaua‘i Habitat for Humanity later that year.

“It was unsolicited money — people’s hearts just went out to Kaua‘i,” says the organization’s executive director, Stephen Spears. “They saw all the damage and they wanted to give money to Habitat to build houses here.”

About 66 homes were constructed by 1998, largely on Hawaiian Home Lands in Anahola.

Since then, Kaua‘i Habitat for Humanity has been assisting others in need of affordable housing by acquiring a subdivision in ‘Ele‘ele, and has already built 18 homes there. As soon as the $1.4 million in infrastructure work — including sewer lines and road improvements — is finalized, the group will start the process of developing more than 100 additional homes in ‘Ele‘ele. In the meantime, the nonprofit is constructing a handful of new homes in Anahola, and is helping qualifying homeowners repair and renovate their aging abodes, particularly in Koloa and Waimea.

Still, demand for affordable housing on Kaua‘i is so great, the homes can’t be built fast enough.

“The need is tremendous,” says Spears.

In ‘Ele‘ele alone, approximately 1,800 families have inquired about receiving applications, and some 500 families completed applications for the 18 homes already built. Spears expects to receive at least 100 applications per house for the upcoming lots.

It comes as no surprise, since the average household on Kaua‘i can’t afford to purchase a home.

“The ‘affordable’ houses still cost about $400,000 to $500,000,” says Spears. “So your mortgage payment will be about $2,500 to $3,500 a month.

“You’ve got to be making some money.”

To qualify for a Kaua‘i Habitat for Humanity home, applicants must be earning 80 percent below medium income or an estimate of about $55,000 to $60,000 combined income for a family of four.

The cost to build a Kaua‘i Habitat for Humanity home is about half the price of a normal property, as the labor is largely completed by volunteers and the homeowners. Volunteers, many of whom come in groups from the Mainland to participate, do everything from digging to hammering and roofing. The only services that require a licensed contractor are plumbing and electric.

For one home, some 4,000 to 5,000 hours of volunteer work is typically needed. Homeowners also are required to put in 700 hours of labor among themselves and their friends and family — the most number of hours for any Habitat in the country.

“Habitats are affiliated nationally and go within certain covenants, but they always fine-tune to the area they are in. That’s what makes them work better,” explains Spears.

The reason the number is so much higher is because there are such big ‘ohana on Kaua‘i, and the unpaid labor allows the house to cost much less.

When a project is completed, the homeowner can acquire a mortgage in one of several different ways, but usually through a loan from Kaua‘i Habitat for Humanity with zero percent interest. The organization raises its money by collecting funds from individual donors, grants and various other sources.

The fact that Kaua‘i Habitat for Humanity is not a giveaway program is what Spears finds most beneficial.

“The people still work hard, they work at it, they appreciate it and it’s empowering to them,” he says regarding the homeowners. “They build the house with us. It’s a good partnership.”

Kristie Ka‘aihu-Paopao, who works for Queen Lili‘uokalani Children’s Center, has had fun building a home with her family in Anahola.

“We’ve had such a great time laughing, joking. We laugh all day long,” she says. “It means so much more, I think, because we’re out here.”

Ka‘aihue-Paopao will eventually reside in the home with her husband Sai and three of their four children.

“This is for my kids. It’s rewarding that they will have something that will be theirs,” says Sai Ka‘aihue-Paopao.

“It helps secure a home for our kids that’s affordable,” adds his wife.

The family has been waiting patiently 24 years for the home, and this was their seventh time through the application process. They have had ups and downs financially, but as the economy took a nose dive in recent years, so did available work for Sai, a painting contractor.

“This was just the perfect timing, the right place at the right time to qualify for a self-help home,” says Kristie. “It’s an overwhelming blessing.”

Habitat makes a difference in people’s lives, says the organization’s development director Milani Pimental. Everything about the organization helps build people’s confidence all the way down to the pre-workday tradition of “circle-up,” where volunteers and homeowners gather in a circle to grasp hands and raise them together as a team.

“The motto is we’re not giving a handout, we’re giving a hand up,” she says.

Kaua‘i Habitat for Humanity is especially lucky to have someone like Spears serving as its executive director, Pimental says.

“Stephen is great to work with,” she says. “He really empowers the staff to do what they were hired on to do. He embraces the skills we have. He motivates us to do our best for the people we serve.”

Spears has been involved with Habitat in some capacity since the 1990s.

Before moving to Kaua‘i, he volunteered for the nonprofit while working as a computer consultant. When residing in West Virginia — where he was born and attended college — he volunteered many hours at different construction sites, lending the carpentering skills he acquired as a young adult.

“I liked working with my hands,” he says.

He also helped Almost Heaven Habitat for Humanity in Circleville, W.Va., gain financial momentum when he served as its treasurer and construction estimator.

His connections with Habitat eventually led him to Hawai‘i, where he’s assisted the organization in various capacities, including interim executive director in 2000. He ultimately left his work in the computer industry and was hired to fill his current position in 2007. His job requires him to wear many hats: working with the county to obtain permits, corresponding with the development staff and the board, as well as managing financials like donations that come through the organization’s thrift store, ReStore, in Hanapepe.

When he isn’t working, Spears paddles a six-man canoe or oneman outrigger canoe.

“I need the exercise and I love paddling,” says Spears, who is married to Barbara Inglis.

Spears plans to continue advocating for additional acreage to build even more affordable homes. “Unless by some miracle a bunch of affordable lots become available on Kaua‘i, but we don’t see that happening. I see nobody developing affordable lots for families here,” he says.

Granting opportunities to families that might not have otherwise had them is the most rewarding aspect of Spears’ job. It makes a big difference in their lives, he says.

“It really builds up the whole community and makes a real stable living environment for someone to raise their children in,” he adds.

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