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?
For a month and a half, Dorie-Ann Kahale lived under a gray tarp at Nanakuli Flats. She and her five daughters, ages 6 to 20, had moved there after the rent on her two-bedroom apartment in Waimalu had gone from $800 to $1,200. Technically, it increased to $1,000, but the landlord charged an extra $25 each day she was late, and by the time she had enough money to pay, it ended up being more like $1,200. Too much for a single mom making $24,000 a year taking customer service calls at an Internet company.
It wasn’t the first time Dorie and her children had been homeless. Before Waimalu, they had slept in the backyard of her sister-in-law’s house in Waimanalo for more than a year.
>> WEB EXCLUSIVE
An exclusive interview with the Japanese billionaire on his plans for Kahala Avenue.
By Ronna Bolante
The girls loved living on the beach in Nanakuli . Dorie’s brother-in-law and his children were among the 20 families already living there, so it felt like a long camping trip. Dorie tried to make life as normal as possible, waking up at 3:30 a.m. to get ready for work and leaving the beach by 4:15 a.m. to drive the 40 miles to her job in Koko Marina. She finished work a little before 5 p.m., got home by 7 or 8 p.m. and cooked dinner on a hot plate, often fish. For bathing, she drove her daughters to the next beach over, where the restrooms were cleaner and safer.
Sundays were still church days at Lanakila Church, a two-story white house on Maunalei Avenue in Kaimuki. Dorie had grown up at that church. Forty years earlier, her father, Joseph Kahale, had walked into the office of the church pastor, the Rev. Charles Tang. Joseph had told the reverend that his wife was seven months pregnant, and he wanted him to be the godfather of what would be the last of their eight children—the baby of the family.
Joseph died when Dorie was 6 years old, and her childhood was split between her family’s home in Waimanalo and the reverend’s home in Diamond Head. “I lived two lives,” she says. “My real family was living in poverty, struggling to make ends meet, but it was awesome because the love was just unbelievable—that’s how Hawaiians are. And with my godfather, who was Chinese, in a big house in Diamond Head. He was a very strong man who gave me a strong spiritual upbringing.”
Dorie’s own children didn’t have that stability. Her youngest daughter, Branzi, had already lived in a half-dozen places, one for nearly every year since she was born. While her children slept under their tent at Nanakuli Flats, “I was falling apart and crying to God, ‘I can’t believe I brought my kids this low.’ I said to God, ‘I don’t now where you’re going with this, Lord, but I do know you’re the pilot of what’s going on in this life.’”
One evening in August last year, Dorie came home from work to find her daughters sitting quietly under their tent—the only one left on the beach. The whole camp was gone. While Dorie was at work, city workers had moved the other families into the newly opened Onelauena shelter at Kalaeloa.
Her daughters looked at her, asking “Mom, what are we going to do? We can’t stay here with everybody gone.” Dorie told them, “Don’t worry. God will take care of us.”
Less than a week later, they were allowed to move into the homeless shelter at Kalaeloa. The girls liked living at the beach better. All six of them shared one room in the three-story, cinderblock building, which had once been a military barracks. They had one double bed, which the girls usually left for their mom, and a mattress on the floor. Like all the other families in the building, they were assigned a time every day to use the showers in the communal bathrooms on their floor. Once, Dorie saw ukus jumping on the sink counter and told the girls not to put anything down in the bathroom from that point on.
|Kamalani (15), Kisha (14), Zandi (20) and Branzi (7) hang out in the casual living room, where the family spends most of their time. Tisha (14), not pictured.|
“From the time I got into the shelter, I knew the next step was getting out,” Dorie says. “I prayed very, very hard for us, but I told God, ‘I cannot afford nothing. I’ve looked and I’ve looked.’”
One month after the Kahales moved into the shelter, “God brought Kawamoto out,” she says. While driving her carpool to work one morning, two radio DJs couldn’t stop talking about one of the most bizarre news stories Hawaii had heard in awhile. Genshiro Kawamoto, a billionaire from Japan who owned dozens of homes on Oahu, had announced that he would rent several of his Kahala Avenue homes to needy Hawaiian families for $150 a month.
“I felt like he was talking to me,” Dorie says. “After I dropped off my carpool and drove to Koko Marina, I said, ‘Thank you, God. Thank you for the answer.’”
By Kahala Avenue standards, Dorie’s new home is modest, next to sprawling kamaaina estates and lot-filling mansions. Many of her neighbors’ homes are barely visible from the street, hidden behind story-high walls. Dorie’s white, two-story colonial house is easy to spot on the mauka corner of Kahala and Elepaio Street. A plastic banner strung up between two palm trees reads: “Mahalo, Kawamoto-San!” The ornate, wrought-iron gate that had fronted the property had been torn down before she moved in, as were the gates for the other two properties Kawamoto gave away last spring.
“Outside, it looks like a regular home, like Eight is Enough—you know that show? But when I came inside, I thought, holy crap,” she says.
April 22 was the first day Dorie and her children were allowed to enter the house, and she was almost too afraid to get out of the car. One of Kawamoto’s staffers—Miguel, a maintenance worker—came to her door to guide her through the crowd of reporters, spotlights and TV cameras. Dorie had brought a white envelope filled with $400 in cash, not knowing when Kawamoto would want her rent money. That’s when he announced that he would not take her cash. All three families could stay in his homes for the next decade, rent-free.
Of the three families Kawamoto picked, the Kahales have received the most media attention, mainly because of the Cinderella story (headlines usually read something like, “From homeless shelter to Kahala mansion”) and Dorie’s enthusiasm for talking about it. The Worley family, only a few houses away, had gotten one of Kawamoto’s homes when the lease on their Waianae house was almost up; they hadn’t been homeless. The Gusman family had been homeless, but has declined media interviews since they moved to Kahala.
Not Dorie. She’s done interviews with ABC’s Nightline—“They cut to an interview with Barack Obama event right after that!”—and The New York Times and CNN. She can’t believe how skinny TV reporters are in person and told one local news anchor that she looked like she might blow away. She saw Steven Seagal as she drove past him near the Kahala Hotel. “He waved to me!” she says.
The media circus hasn’t been all fun. Dorie Googled herself one day to see what was being written about her and found a post from a blogger who criticized Kawamoto for handing out his homes to single moms. “He wrote something like, ‘I don’t know why Kawamoto feels sorry for these lazy-ass mothers who do nothing. Look one of the moms, get five girls and so many different dads—why would you feel sorry for these women?’”
Dorie cried after that she read that. She started typing out a reply that began, “You don’t really know us, what we went through in our past.” But she ended up not submitting the message.
|Dorie looks forward to the day her daughters walk down this white granite staircase, on their way to prom.|
People around her have reacted in different ways. Relatives and friends she hasn’t seen in years stopped by the house, even while she has been at work, and asked her daughters if they could take a look around. At the homeless shelter, residents congratulated her while they waited for their own miracles; she saw many of them again when she went back to tape an interview with the Discovery Channel.
Some of Dorie’s friends haven’t been as excited about the news. “At my church, some of them are not happy for me; I’d walk up to some of them, and they would just turn away,” she says. “My auntie said to me, ‘Don’t be high-minded.’ I said, ‘Have I? I would not act like that.’ All it is, is a home. In reality, it’s not mine.”
All of the neighbors she’s met have welcomed her to Kahala. During her first week in her new home, Dorie stood in her backyard, surveying her pool, which had been filled with dirt—something Kawamoto had done at all three properties. Her neighbor peered over the fence between their properties and introduced himself as Gerry Blanchette, a retired Navy master chief. “Hey, your pool—don’t worry about it,” he told her. “My pool is your pool. Anytime the kids want to swim, they can come over.”
It’s been more than three months since the Kahales moved into the four-bedroom, four-and-a-half-bath-house, and the media attention has died down. The house feels normal now. Like home.
It’s a Tuesday night. Dorie has just gotten home from work, her red Nissan Xterra is parked under the porte-cochere. Out back, Dorie’s Uncle Paul—she calls him Papa—waters the yard. Soon after they moved in, Uncle Paul planted Bermuda grass seeds in the pool; now they look like rows of lily pads in the earth.
Inside the French doors, Kawamoto’s style is evident in the furnishings he picked out, including the green brocade curtains with gold tassels and the hand-painted armoires. They mix with furniture donated from friends and strangers. A neighbor gave Dorie a used 52-inch Sony TV that has yet to be plugged in. A woman Dorie met once insisted on buying her a hulking entertainment center at the Salvation Army. A local pastor offered to take care of her monthly house phone bill.
“When I moved in here, people from heaven knows where popped in and wanted to donate all these things,” Dorie says. “The Lord has really blessed me.”
In the living room, a cream-colored chaise is overrun by Branzi’s stuffed animals. She had gotten several of them for Christmas while living at the shelter. “When she got them, she’d say, ‘Let’s put them in a box, and we’ll open it up when we get a home in Kahala,’” Dorie says. “We have five boxes of stuffed animals, but we can’t give them away now. It brings us back to the reality of where we came from.”
The kitchen is packed with stainless steel appliances, which the family uses to prepare lunch for all 200 members of the Lanakila Church congregation after Sunday service.
It’s almost 90 degrees, and Dorie’s long, curly hair is pinned back into a bun. She never turns on the central air-conditioning in the house, which is why her monthly electricity bill is only $247—the family’s only major expense living here. Kawamoto assigned two staffers to help with maintenance and landscaping, but Dorie has called them only once, when she discovered that it would cost $50 to replace a broken light fixture. “I figure, we got two hands,” she says. “We can do most of the maintenance ourselves.”
She and her 14-year-old twin daughters act more like girlfriends than a mother and her children. Tisha sits shoulder-to-shoulder with Dorie, playing with her red cell phone. Dorie got each of her girls a phone after they moved in. Kisha sidles up to Dorie’s other shoulder a few minutes later.
“Mom, I’m hungry,” Tisha says. “What’s for dinner?”
“Go cook something,” Dorie says.
“No more food. Can we get McDonald’s?”
“Get food—you just gotta fry ’em up yourself, girl.”
Up the white granite staircase, Branzi naps in her mom’s standard-size bed in the master bedroom. A basket full of unfolded laundry sits a few feet away from Dorie’s white porcelain tub, which never gets used, except when her young nieces and nephews come over and splash around in it like it’s a mini-pool.
A scrapbook sits on an end table near Dorie’s bed. It’s a white plastic binder that holds papers representing everything important to her—an old family portrait, the high school diploma she earned after completing the GED program and her certificate in computer training from Alu Like, a nonprofit that provides social services and educational programs to Hawaiians. On the cover of the binder is a photo of Kawamoto and her family on the day they moved in.
Dorie considers him her “fairy godfather,” an angel. She’s heard about his past—how, in the late 1980s, during what became known as the Japanese bubble, he drove around Honolulu in his white limo, buying close to 200 properties. She heard about complaints that he hadn’t maintained many of the homes and had evicted tenants with only a few weeks’ notice.
But when reporters ask Dorie about his reputation, she asks them, “‘Have you ever met him?’ Most of them haven’t. I’m telling you, he’s just the nicest guy.” She first met Kawamoto when he visited the shelter at Kalaeloa, one month before his office informed her that she was chosen to live in one of his homes. When he saw little Branzi, he told Dorie, “She look Japanese!”
|A new neighborhood means new schools for daughters Kisha (left) and Branzi (center). Kamalani is homeschooled.|
Kawamoto had his translator ask Dorie if she would be willing to transfer her children to Kahala schools—good schools, he had heard. She said she would. This month, the twins, who attended Aiea Intermediate, will enroll in Kalani High School and Branzi will transfer from Ala Wai Elementary to Kahala.
“I told the twins, ‘Your atmosphere is going to change’—at Kalani, their parents are well-off,” Dorie says. “But I said, ‘Girls, you guys are the most fortunate kids in this damn world.’ Look at these beautiful stairs they get to walk down when they get ready for prom!”
Dorie doesn’t worry about the twins as much as she does about Branzi, her baby. She wonders if she’ll fit into her new school, or if she’ll be teased by classmates whose parents actually own homes in Kahala.
“My baby is kind of nervous, and I keep telling her, ‘Kahala is a very, very good public school,” Dorie says. “You don’t know how much that’s eating me up inside, but I have to send her. It’s a promise I made to Kawamoto.”
On June 30, two weeks before Dorie’s 40th birthday, her house becomes the venue for the Kahale family reunion. By 11 a.m., at least 30 cars line quiet Elepaio Street. More than 200 relatives, many of whom had not seen Dorie’s new place, now lounged in her backyard and family room, wearing matching T-shirts that say: “Kahale Ohana, Together Forever, 2007.” Some of them have been there since the previous night.
The family hasn’t gotten together like this since 2004, when they gathered at Waimanalo Beach Park. When Dorie’s mother and uncle both passed away last year, they decided it was time for another reunion.
Her high-ceilinged foyer is filled with a half-dozen coolers and cases of Coke and bottled water. In the kitchen, two of her cousins keep close watch over a giant pot of beef stew. Out back, about a dozen children splash around in two inflated pools.
The covered patio looks like something out of House and Garden magazine—natural stone flooring, tiki torches and black-and-cream striped curtains. Almost every square foot of her backyard is occupied by a Kahale in a reunion T-shirt, every available seat holds a relative playing cards, catching up and eating poke, chips and boiled peanuts.
Dorie’s sister, Bernie, updates the family tree on her laptop. One of their cousins, Stephanie, arrives and gives as many Kahales as she can grab a hug and a kiss. “So, sis,” she calls out to Dorie, “this is your hale?”
“Come on,” Dorie beckons her toward the living room. “I’ll give you the grand tour!”
A half-hour later, Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” blares over the lawn, piped out over the home’s sound system. Dorie tells Tisha to turn it down. Past midnight last night, her neighbor, the retired navy officer’s son, peeked over the fence and asked them to keep it down, and she doesn’t want him to have to do that again.
When the midday sun starts to creep onto the covered patio, a few of the men lug out eight metal poles and a gray tarp to create more shade. It becomes a big production, with a few of the teenage girls jumping in to help. Once the tent is up, the eight of them carry the assembled shelter closer to the house, creating an extension for the black-and-cream striped awning.
Pule! someone calls out. Pule! The food is ready, and it’s time to bless it. The conversations subside, and the overhead music stops. The children emerge from the pools, wrap themselves in beach towels and pick spots in the warm sun. Bernie closes her laptop as everyone rises from their seats and bows their heads.
One of Dorie’s cousins leads the blessing of the food, thanking God for bringing their ohana together on this rare occasion. “Thank you to Dorie for opening her home to us,” she says, her voice the only sound in the now quiet backyard. “Thank you to Mr. Kawamoto, for making this possible.” Barely a second after she finishes, everyone starts to sing the “Ka Mele Hoomaikai,” “The Hawaiian Doxology” that most of them learned as children at Lanakila Church. Praise him above ye heavenly hosts. Praise Father, Son and the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Time to eat! The eldest and youngest members of the family stand in line for their food first, piling beef stew, k-alua pig and cabbage, mac salad, Zippy’s chili and hot dogs onto their plastic plates. Dorie doesn’t sit down, but strolls the patio and ushers everyone else to the buffet line to make their plates.
She looks around. It’s been nearly a year since she and daughters first moved onto the beach in Nanakuli, and today she’s hosting her family reunion in a beautiful home on Kahala Avenue. Her home. “I’m so blessed,” she says aloud. “All this time, I feel like God never left my side.”
>> WEB EXCLUSIVE
Q&A Genshiro Kawamoto
For all the headlines that Genshiro Kawamoto makes, he does not like being interviewed or even being recognized in public. The billionaire from Japan first caught Hawaii residents’ attention in the late 1980s, when he rode around Oahu in his white limousine and purchased nearly 200 prime properties during what became known as the “Japanese bubble.” In the ’90s, Kawamoto took heat for allowing many of those properties to fall into disrepair. Three years ago, the eccentric businessman gave locals even more reason to dislike him, when he announced that he would sell his Oahu properties, giving his tenants 45 days to move out, just weeks before Christmas.Ê
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.