There’s good news trickling down from Washington, D.C., for Hawaii Island’s 17,000 veterans. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs will once again guarantee loans for homes on water catchment systems.
The news was announced late Wednesday by U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, a Democrat representing Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional District.
“Over the past year, I have worked to overcome tremendous obstacles that have prevented Hawaii’s veterans from purchasing a home with their VA benefits simply because the only available water source for their home was a rainwater catchment system,” Gabbard said in a statement. “For too long veterans who have served our country have been caught in an unacceptable bureaucratic stalemate which has prevented them from using the benefits they have earned and deserve.”
West Hawaii Today highlighted the problem in August in an article featuring two Hawaiian Paradise Park veterans who were forced to spend tens of thousands more to have their home loans backed by conventional sources because of their water catchment systems. VA loans are preferable because homes can often be financed with little or no money down, and the buyer doesn’t have to pay inspection fees, mortgage insurance, closing costs and the like.
It’s estimated that more than 60,000 Big Island homes rely on water catchment because there is no municipal water service to their properties. Municipal water systems are tested regularly; catchment systems are not.
Caleb Churchill, a disabled vet who along with Shep Kuester was profiled in the article, has kept up a steady drumbeat of resistance to the VA’s 2011 decision to quit backing loans on homes with catchment. Churchill volunteers at the Veterans of Foreign Wars service office in Hilo, trying to help his former comrades in arms adjust to civilian life.
The new rule, circulated by the VA on Wednesday, allows catchment as long as the buyers are given a University of Hawaii pamphlet on guidelines for water catchment systems and have the catchment tank tested by a laboratory acceptable to the state Department of Health.
“We’re so excited,” Kuester said Thursday, crediting his pal, Churchill, as the “engine that got this done.”
“This is going to help a lot of the veterans, especially the young veterans who will be able to afford their first home,” Kuester said. “Our community is going to benefit tremendously from this influx of skilled workers and entrepreneurial families making this place home.”
Gabbard, herself a veteran, was given credit by most of those interviewed Thursday because of the consistent effort of her office getting the VA to reconsider its stance.
Ronald P. Han Jr., director of the state Office of Veterans’ Services was also pleased.
“This is great news. Many veterans have waited two years and some longer,” Han said. “We appreciate the veterans and their patience.”
A host of elected officials, government agencies and lenders have been involved in the discussion over the past three years. The state Department of Health tried to get a waiver, noting that all other federal mortgage agencies, including HUD, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and USDA Rural Development, approved waivers for properties with catchment systems in Hawaii. Mayor Billy Kenoi, former state Reps. Bob Herkes and Jerry Chang, both Democrats and vets who themselves have relied on catchment systems, and local real estate agents and lenders also kept up steady letter-writing campaigns.
U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono, a Hawaii Democrat, also praised the VA’s decision.
“After raising this issue directly with (VA) Secretary (Eric) Shinseki, I would like to thank him for his strong leadership in once again helping pave the way for veterans to buy a home, even in Hawaii’s deep rural areas that don’t have access to county water lines,” Hirono said in a statement.
Hirono said she also met with state Health Department acting director Gary Gill to discuss this issue. Gill was in legislative hearings Thursday and couldn’t be reached for comment by press time.
Hawaii County has supplemented homeowners’ private water catchment systems by providing a network of public water spigots around the island, so residents can draw water for drinking and cooking. In a 2004 environmental assessment, the county estimated expanding municipal water to the Puna District alone would cost upwards of $88 million in 1999 dollars.