Sweat equity helps Big Island family afford Habitat for Humanity home on Hawaiian Home Lands lot

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Hilton Grand Vacations employees volunteered to helpd work on a Habitat for Humanity home in Kawaihae for the Kalai family. (Photo courtesy: Hilton Grand Vacations)

Every weekend since March 2022, when construction began on her Habitat for Humanity home in South Kohala, single mother Pauahi Kalai has been at her lot helping to pour cement, put up walls, install drywall and insulation, and paint.

The 48-year-old, who works two jobs, has helped build her 1,300-square-foot home with four bedrooms, two baths and a carport take shape — despite setbacks from the COVID-19 pandemic that included supply chain issues and the limited number of people who could work on it at the same time.

Now, six years after she started the process, her new home is down to the final stages. Crews are installing flooring and tiling the bathroom. Electricians and plumbers are completing their work, with finishing touches and final inspections the last things to do.

Sometime in August, her dream will come true. She will get the keys and move into the new home with her two minor children, adult daughter and two grandkids.

“It will feel more amazing when we’re there,” she said.


All the sweat equity and perseverance will be worth having a home to call her own.

So will the lifetime of savings. She currently is paying $3,000 a month in rent for a three-bedroom home in Waimea. Her adult daughter also works to help make ends meet.

On top of the outrageous monthly rent, Kalai said she’s had to move her family every two years or so because the homeowner either wanted to sell or move back in the residence.

“We were just making it work paycheck-to-paycheck,” Kalai said.

Pauahi Kalai and her daughter Kelsie onsite of their Kawaihae home being built by Habitat for Humanity on a lot provided by the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands. (Photo courtesy: Hilton Grand Vacations)

But when Kalai moves in, she will pay no more than $1,000 a month on a 30-year mortgage with no interest.


“That’s going to be so easy to pay since we’ve been paying so much,” she said.

Her wish for a forever home was granted in 2017 when the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands approved her application and awarded her a lot to build on in Kawaihae. She received the permit to start building in June 2021 and broke ground three months later.

“Every step of the way, I was there,” Kalai said. “I’ve been going there every week to pull weeds since no one is there. And,the grass and weeds just grow. It’s home already for us.”

Kalai’s brown home sits on a dirt lot and is the first that will be finished on a five-home build in Kawaihae on Department of Hawaiian Home Lands. Twelve homes have been built so far in the South Kohala subdivision.

Habitat for Humanity, a Christian organization with a mission to provide homeownership opportunities for families with limited income, has partnered with the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands for several projects throughout the years to provide homeownership opportunities for Hawaiian families statewide.


Those who apply and are approved receive a no-interest mortgage financed by the state agency’s Native American Housing Assistance and Self Determination Act Program.

Patrick Hurney, executive director for West Hawai‘i Habitat for Humanity, said a typical mortgage cost for a home built by Habitat for Humanity is $800 to $1,000 a month, which includes taxes and fees.

“It’s almost like winning the housing lottery for a lot of families,” he said.

Pauahi Kalai works to build her Kawaihae home with volunteers from Habitat for Humanity on a lot provided by the Department of Hawaiian home Lands. (Photo courtesy: Hilton Grand Vacations)

But the reduced mortgage is also a result of the volunteer labor provided by the new homeowners, their friends and the nonprofit, which provides about 40% of the cost reduction to the mortgage payment. Families receiving a home through Habitat for Humanity are required to put in 500 hours of sweat equity.

The Kawaihae build also included volunteers from Hilton Grand Vacations in Waikōloa. Sixteen maintenance workers and office staff put in eight hours on a Thursday in June. They did some caulking, touch-ups and finished painting the exterior of the house.

“Contributing to the project from the ground up gave our team a tremendous sense of accomplishment and enabled them to make a meaningful contribution to our local community,” said Robert Ishihara, general manager of Kings’ Land Hilton Grand Vacations. “Everyone enjoyed the project, and they are already looking forward to the next build.”

The timeshare company also has participated in Habitat for Humanity builds on O‘ahu and Maui, and it regularly donates furniture to the nonprofit’s ReStores in Kona, Waimea and Hilo.

Hurney said he is grateful for the support from the company, which shows the importance in helping to build affordable housing with the average mortgage range on Hawai‘i Island at $2,500 to $3,000 a month. And only “if you can find something.”

“Everybody is threatened by housing insecurity,” he said. “I appreciate people trying to build the middle class.”

This build is special for Hurney because he knew Kalai. They worked together in the past at a homeless shelter in Kawaihae. They saw first-hand the impacts of the housing shortage while working with families living in their cars.

Kalai said working with the homeless can be difficult because available resources are challenging to find if people don’t have stable employment. And without a stable income or a good credit score, it’s not likely someone will get pre-qualified for a home.

Kalai had pre-qualified for a home before the opportunity became available to build with the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands. But there weren’t homes on the market that were in her price range for the loan.

Being able to lower the cost by providing labor has been the difference.

“It’s a lot of hard work for us to build our own home,” she said. “I didn’t realize how much they have to do get a house up.”

Paulau Kalai said her new Habitat for Humanity home in Kawaihae has a million dollar view. She and her family are set to move into the 1,300-square-foot home in August 2023. (Photo courtesy: Hilton Grand Vacations)

Kalai’s kids have already picked out their rooms. So far, the view is her favorite aspect of her new property.

“Where my house is sitting, we’re almost to the top of Kailapa Subdivision, and you can see the whole ocean from Kohala all the way to Kona,” Kalai said. “That’s the reason I picked that lot. That’s a million-dollar view.”

Hurney said Kalai is an extremely deserving and hard-working person.

“Being able to build a home for Pauahi amplifies the joy and fulfillment that I get out of my work here,” he said. “The two days I love the most at Habitat is the day you call the family and tell them they’re approved and we’re going to put them in the build schedule. The other day is when you turn the keys over and that house becomes a home.”

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