The State of Aloha

People usually don’t characterize the 1950s as a radical time. But beyond the conformist and suffocating culture of the United States, the mid-20th century saw waves of momentous change and optimism.

After World War II, colonialism was on its way out. Empires were collapsing. Europe destroyed itself, and it was impractical for those countries to retain their aging colonial holdings all over the world. New countries sprang up in rapid succession.

Folks in Hawaii took notice. The wave of anti-colonialism reached our shores too. What was the point of fighting racist dictatorships far, far away only to return to a territorial backwater with almost no democracy and independence? Instead of declaring independence, however, Hawaii opted for statehood. We got it in 1959.

The anti-colonial spirit didn’t end there. Hawaii’s earliest leaders were eager to emerge from the shadow of the oppressive plantation economy run by an oligarchy. It was time to make things more equitable.

An old issue centered around land. Back then, actual homeownership was rare. Many Hawaii folks were leaseholders on vast tracts of land owned by old estates dating back to the days of the Hawaiian Kingdom.

Partly out of tradition and out of the terms of the trust, these entities were loath to sell land and planned to hold them indefinitely. This meant that residents living on the estate were tenants — forever.

The liberals, many of whom grew up in a plantation economy, wanted to change this. Modeled after legislation from Baltimore, the territorial legislature regularly proposed “Maryland bills” that would effectively force landowners to sell or give up their leaseholds; the result would let tenants own their homes in fee.

The call for land reform became a chimeric quest. Republicans, the party of the landowners and the haole elite, obviously were not in favor of it. But even after statehood and Democratic assumption of power, land reform still was out of reach. Some Democrats, as they took over the government, became more and more reluctant to pass what they saw as radical land reform. (It almost passed in 1963, but then-state Sen. George Ariyoshi defeated it with his single vote.) It took 18 years, until 1967, to pass the Hawaii Land Reform Law.

It established a government agency that would receive claims from tenants seeking to convert their lease to a fee simple title. It could then condemn private property in the name of the public use, convert leasehold lots into fee simple lots and redistribute it back to the tenant in fee. Of course, it would pay the landowner just compensation.

This was pretty radical. Opponents claimed that it was in the same vein of the land reforms witnessed in Communist China and Central America. It was an overt form of wealth redistribution and “class warfare.”

The anti-colonial spirit of the ’50s was over. The governor at the time, John A. Burns, a centrist, refused to put it into use. Leaseholds continued into the 1970s.

Ironically, the law was finally put to use when leaseholders sought to convert their property in the fashionable and expensive neighborhood of Kahala and Waialae. These were not landless peasants. The landowner, on the other hand, was none other than the Bishop Estate — an estate designed to benefit Native Hawaiian children.

When these leaseholders petitioned the government to exercise eminent domain, it responded. The Bishop Estate challenged the law by arguing that the redistribution of land was unconstitutional and could not be considered “public use” — a requirement mandated by the U.S. Constitution’s Fifth Amendment.

The case went all the way up the Supreme Court of the United States. Nearly 30 years ago, the court issued its opinion in favor of the government. It makes no mention of the well-to-do leaseholders in East Oahu. It doesn’t even really mention that the landowner is in fact a trust.

It manages to portray the descendants of Native Hawaiian leaders as a group of concentrated big landowners who need to be broken up. In fact, it made the notion of redistributing wealth a justified means to establish time-honored American tradition: owning a home.

In theory, the state still has the power to redistribute landownership, but is seldom used.

The land reform law can be considered a leftover from the radicalism of the 1940s and ’50s when liberals were eager to reshape society into a more equitable community. Then again, it could be a seen as an inspiration for action today.

The housing situation now is at a crisis point. Multimillion-dollar homes on Maui are glorified in advertisements while homeless camps at beaches and in abandoned cane fields continue to grow. For locals, the cost of living has rendered the prospect of owning a home a pipe dream. Homeownership for many is a fantasy. Maybe a little local-style radicalism from the days of our state’s founding wouldn’t hurt.

* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer who grew up on Maui. His email is “The State of Aloha” alternates Fridays with Sarah Ruppenthal’s “Neighbors.”