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Success Stories

Rural Development Helped Her Own a Home: She's Now Kauai's Habitat for Humanity Executive Director

David Rush
Grants
Homeownership Month 2023
Underserved
Milani Pimental and her family

Twenty-two years ago, Milani Pimental and her husband built their home in Kalaheo, Kauai with the help of Kauai Habitat for Humanity and the Single Family Housing Direct Home Loan, also known as the Section 502 Direct Loan Program, through USDA Rural Development (RD).

The program assists low-and very-low-income applicants obtain decent, safe and sanitary housing in eligible rural areas by providing payment assistance to increase an applicant’s repayment ability.

Nearly two decades later, Pimental was selected to the position of the Kauai Habitat for Humanity Executive Director in 2020. Pimental said that RD played a vital role in helping her to become a homeowner and continue the Habitat for Humanity mission.              

“As Habitat for Humanity International puts it, ‘Everyone should have access to an affordable home.’ It is our obligation to provide truly affordable homes and allow our residents the same opportunity for ‘home’ as others of different economic statuses. Rural Development is a key component to our continue work and success. We are fortunate that Kauai County is considered rural and that we can take advantage of the many programs that Rural Development has to offer.”

According to RD Hawaii/Western Pacific Housing Director Cynthia Jackson, the direct loan program is essential, particularly in Hawaii’s expensive housing market.

“Today more than ever, home prices in Hawaii are so high that they are not affordable to the low-income families that we serve.  With the mutual self-help program, the owners have as much as 20-percent sweat equity when they close their low interest loan and it’s the only option some people have in order to own a home,” said Jackson.

RD’s involvement in housing helps people become homeowners and keep their homes in good shape in a variety of ways.

“Habitat for Humanity in our single-family housing programs, provides resources in a couple of ways.  First, Habitat for Humanity is a valued self-help grantee and has been providing technical assistance to families across the Hawaiian Islands for many years.  In addition, Habitat for Humanity is a Housing Preservation Grant recipient, and they help individual homeowners with health and safety repairs on their homes, using matching funds,” said Jackson. 

According to Pimental, the process of building their home was well worth the effort.

“My husband and I went through the self-help process to build our home in Kalaheo from late 2000 to October 2001. We went through countless hours of sweat equity work and enlisted the help of many family members and friends to help us build our home and our neighbor's homes,” said Pimental.

In addition to having the satisfaction of building their home, the experience created bonds with their neighbors who have shared experience.

“It was wonderful to get to know our 18 neighbors and their families. We’ve formed a great bond and have enjoyed living in our neighborhood together. We’ve supported each other with births of new children, deaths of loved ones, and most recently for some neighbors, new grandchildren,” she said.    
“For the first few years after moving in, our neighbors would gather just like we did during our lunch time through our build process. We still try to get together whenever possible, either in the neighborhood or out on the town. All in all, it was an amazing experience.”

As to how she got to her current position as Executive Director for Kauai’s Habitat for Humanity, she credits her hands-on home building experience and desire to help her community.  

“I had worked in the nonprofit industry for some time in the workforce investment industry and with conservation and science. In the 2008/2009 economic downturn I was laid off and didn’t think I would choose to go back to nonprofit work, until Kauai Habitat contacted me. A mutual friend of mine and the executive director at the time connected us. I started work just part-time in the resource (fund) development office and two years later when my then director moved away, I accepted the full-time resource development director position,” said Pimental.

“From that point on I was eager to learn more about Habitat for Humanity and our work on Kauai. The fund development position eventually evolved into a new and challenging deputy director position, and when our executive director stepped down, I accepted the post of acting executive director. I formally applied for the position and was selected in 2021 as executive director.”

In addition to helping families build affordable housing, the importance has even greater meaning according to Pimental.

“Our work as Habitat on Kauai is critical to helping homebuyers remain here on island where their roots go back for generations. “Place" is such an important concept in Hawaii, and I am proud of our work to be able to allow our Kauai residents to be able to afford to live here. Our market has been long a high cost one for our residents.”

According to Pimental, the homes being built in rural Kauai are in the long-term interest of Hawaii families.

“Many Habitat families I spoken to have told me that the home they are building or have already built, is for their children and their children’s children. Our homebuyers want to leave a legacy for their families and enable them to continue to have deep roots in our land here on Kauai,” she said.

Not only is there the satisfaction that comes with building a home, it also improves quality of life for those who may be sharing households with many extended family members.

“With Habitat, we help explain our programs by saying “through shelter, we empower.” This phrase holds very true especially when you see the progress a household makes after they move into their Habitat home. Many will find that a big burden has been lifted because they no longer have to move every year or every few months, or they no longer have to live in an overcrowded home with one family in each bedroom of a shared family 5-bedroom home,” said Pimental.

“In the neighborhood we live in in Kalaheo, some of us have had the opportunity to improve our homes and build fences, enclose carports, replace roofing. It never fails that when our neighbors hear hammers and nail guns, they all come out and pitch in to help just like we did during our build," Pimental concluded.  

On Wednesday, June 21, Kauai Habitat for Humanity broke ground on its latest project, Kauhale O Waipouli, Kauai Habitat for Humanity purchased the two parcels of land to develop 17, two-story housing units in eight duplexes and a single-family residence.

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