Movin’ on Up (To Kahala)
In April, Dorie-Ann Kahale and her daughters made headlines around the globe when they were chosen to move from a homeless shelter to a mansion on Kahala Avenue. Four months later, are they still living the fairy tale?
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Q&A Genshiro Kawamoto
That’s why Honoluluans were shocked to see him making news again this year, for much different reasons. This spring, Kawamoto, now 75, allowed three needy Hawaiian families to stay in his multimillion-dollar Kahala Avenue homes, rent-free. This month, he plans to give away five more of his 22 homes on the exclusive street. Here’s what the real estate mogul had to say, through his translator, when we sat down with him in June.
HONOLULU: Where did this idea for what you call your “Kahala Avenue mission” come from?
Kawamoto: Kahala Avenue is a very prestigious avenue, yet it is very isolated. I’ve noticed that, not only Hawaiians, but local people in general don’t really go to Kahala Avenue. They think it’s a different world. They don’t really associate with the street.
Four years ago, I purchased a house [in the area] and noticed it is not really town-like. It’s not fun. And there aren’t any Hawaiians living there, which raised the question, “What can I do to change that?” I thought if I could invite Hawaiian people there to live, maybe I could change the atmosphere.
So I drove around the city and went to Waianae, met the homeless people and really noticed the two different worlds in Hawaii. I thought, “Well, why don’t I try to change Kahala Avenue and have more Hawaiian people there?” I wanted to do it quickly. So I bought 22 houses. I thought, if I can allow homeless or close-to-homeless-status people to live in this dream, this lifestyle they have been hoping for, it will give them some meaning to live.
HONOLULU: I hear you received 3,000 responses. How did you decide who the homes would go to?
Kawamoto: I received mainly responses from local people saying “I really like your idea.” [My criteria was that] one, they have lots of small children. And after meeting the children, mother, father or parents, having the sense they were trying to make it, that they were not giving up. I went many times to see homeless people at the shelter. If someone touched my heart, I interviewed them.Ê
HONOLULU: What appealed to you about the three families you selected first?
Kawamoto: Many children, how they behaved and also what kind of occupation the mother had. And that they have a really good core of family and friends. The ones I didn’t want to choose were families that shut out other people or only think of themselves. I chose families that were friendly and outgoing and would make their home a welcoming place. So the eight families, say they have 50 relatives and friends each, that will bring in another 400 people to visit Kahala Avenue, having parties. I want that community of 400 to play on the beach. That’s what I really wanted. If, every weekend, a couple of hundred people visit the families and have fun, the project will be successful.
HONOLULU: There has been some concern from area residents that the project doesn’t mesh with the character of the area. How do you respond to those concerns?
Kawamoto: I think it is actually awkward that few Hawaiians live there. I want the [residents] to understand that, to live happily with the natives, which is a very natural thing to do. I hoped everybody would understand me. I really think this is a place for Hawaiians first.
HONOLULU: Some of your neighbors doubt the motives behind what seems like a generous plan. How do you address those doubts?
Kawamoto: I’m sure they are all over the place. Some people are like that, bent on being skeptical and criticizing things. I was touched by the homeless people I met, because they are so pure and they are striving. I call them housesitters. Some people ask, “What if they just ruin the house? Have you considered that?” Even though the house is ruined, if the children grow up straight, that’s fine.
HONOLULU: From what I understand, the families you’ve selected can live in your homes for 10 years or until their youngest child graduates, right?
Kawamoto: Yes, 10 years. The part about the smallest child graduating from high school—that part I don’t really know yet, because the family may have a child or another baby. I want to see how the families will raise the children for the first 10 years, and then I will decide what happens next.
HONOLULU: You’ve been called impulsive in your business decisions. You’ve bought and sold billions of dollars in Hawaii real estate over the past 20 years. What drives the decisions you make?
Kawamoto: I don’t have staff telling me what to decide. I do things my way, how I think. I don’t actually think of what I do as a business. It’s a game. If there’s something I’m interested in, I just do it. Maybe you want to ask me why I’m giving away so many millions now on Kahala Avenue and not asking for anything back—do you want to ask me that?
HONOLULU: OK. Why are you doing that?
Kawamoto: First of all, there is not any company money involved. I have my own private money for Hawaii, certain assets and cash withheld to do anything I want. I don’t have any family or anyone waiting for me. Because of my age and family status, I started thinking, “Is there anything I can do with my assets?”
On the business side, making the business bigger and having more cash coming, that is not fun. It’s just money. The whole point of the homeless people is because I wanted to do something fun with the money. The hundreds of millions don’t really matter to me. I just want the families to be happy and have fun.
HONOLULU: I also hear you’re planning to convert several of your homes into museums.
Kawamoto: Yes, I will open a museum with a Japanese garden and a teahouse. And I will also open a European museum. In total, there will be seven museums. My homes on the ocean side of the street will be museums where the public can go, and continue on to the beach. The Hawaiian families will live in the homes on the mauka side. I don’t want my 22 Kahala Avenue homes to be homeless shelters—that’s not my intention. At this point, I think it is very balanced to have some Hawaiian people there, and have the ocean side open to the public.
HONOLULU: You have 22 properties on Kahala Avenue—needy families get to live in eight, seven become museums. What about the other seven houses?
Kawamoto: I don’t know yet what I’m going to do with the rest of the homes I own. The Hawaiian people are very appreciative, they thank me and ask me about the other houses—will I give them to more families? I don’t know if I should answer the question yes or no yet.
I’ve spent about $165 million on Kahala Avenue, and it’s going to be about $190 million in renovations. It’s all my pocket money, and I’m surprised I’m doing that. I think it’s very, very incredible. People change, and I’ve changed the way I think about money. Having money, lots of money and expanding cash flow is not really that fun. Money doesn’t really give you many things. [The Kahala Avenue project] is actually rewarding, because I can help people.
HONOLULU: So, what do you do when you’re not making deals? Do you have any hobbies aside from buying houses?
Kawamoto: (laughs) Gardening. I have very dynamic gardens, and I like looking at my houses and seeing what can be changed about the styling and decorating. I like decorating the inside of my houses. I draw designs myself. Maybe you can say Kahala Avenue is my hobby, too. Instead of styling a house, I’m styling a town, I’m styling Kahala Avenue.