An estimated 200 affordable rentals are under construction in Lahaina as part of the Kaiāulu o Kūku′ia project, which includes Hawaiʻi’s very first Bezos Academy preschool.
“What does this community need more than anything else? Affordable housing and childcare,” said Lieutenant Governor Sylvia Luke who spoke at the project’s blessing event in West Maui on Wednesday morning.
A staunch early education advocate, Lt. Gov. Luke lauded the project saying it not only addresses the longstanding need for early childhood support in West Maui, “but also symbolizes the importance of fostering holistic communities for families to thrive.” She said the project aligns with the state’s Ready Keiki Initiative which was launched earlier this year on Maui.
Luke described the combination of affordable rentals with childcare as “a next-generation pathway,” “a vision for the future,” and an example that she hopes can be set for the entire state.
The lieutenant governor thanked the Bezos Academy for taking a chance on Hawaiʻi with its Montessori-inspired preschool for low-income families. “What Bezos is offering is so unique because it is free of cost for every family that will be sending their kids to the preschool… What this academy will do is not only provide lunch services—it provides breakfast, lunch, snack and a take-home dinner so that the child will have a healthy, warm meal throughout the entire day,” said Lt. Gov. Luke.
The year-round preschool program will offer full-day programming for 40 children, focusing on hands-on activities to teach literacy, math, sensory development, social-emotional learning and more.
Mike George, President, Bezos Academy said, “Our hearts are with this community before the tragedy, and will continue. We believe completely that every single child, every preschool aged child deserves the advantages that a preschool provides for them.”
Advocates say fewer than half of the children in the US have a preschool to go to, and George pointed to three main reasons: affordability, availability and location.
As of November 2023, Bezos Academy had 19 schools operating across Washington, Texas and Florida, and agreements in place to open locations across these states and others including: Hawaiʻi, Kentucky and Arizona.
George said, “As soon as the tragedy occurred here in Lahaina… we were worried that it might not happen, but on both ends of this relationship, we were asking, ‘Can we go faster?'”
Ikaika ʻOhana, the nonprofit affordable housing owner and social service coordination company for the project, provided a target for the construction timeline saying completion of housing is expected at the end of 2024 to the first quarter of 2025. The school component is projected to open in 2025, though construction timelines are still being determined.
Ikaika ʻOhana is providing the preschool space rent-free, while Bezos Academy will cover all the costs of operating the school and contribute toward construction costs.
Families earning up to 400% of the federal poverty level (about $120,000 per year for a family of four) with children ages 3-4 are eligible to apply. Once the school opening date is solidified, additional information and an application for the lottery-based selection process will be posted at https://bezosacademy.org.
The housing component of the project will be built in phases with eight units in each of 25 buildings. A blessing for the housing component was held last year, prior to the devastating August 2023 wildfires.
On the morning of Aug. 9, Senator Troy Hashimoto, Former Housing Chair, Hawaiʻi House of Representatives, said he was already trying to get an assessment of what was going on in West Maui.
“This truly is the first permanent housing that you’ll see in West Maui,” he said.
When the Lahaina fire happened, Doug Bigley, Director & President, Ikaika ʻOhana said it thew everyone into a realm of uncertainty.
The land is owned by the Hawaiʻi Housing Finance and Development Corporation, serving households earning up to 60% of the Area Median Income. The project includes two community centers, one hosting a tuition-free Montessori-inspired Bezos Academy preschool for low-income families.
Josiah Nishita, Deputy Managing Director, County of Maui thanked the partners for their work in making the dream a reality. He reflected upon a recent affordable housing seminar he attended in which a participant posed the question: “If I don’t have a safe and secure place to lay my head at night, how do you expect me to dream?”
“Thank you for helping our community to be able to dream again,” Nishita said. “We hope to continue projects like this… and continue working with Ikaika ʻOhana and all of our partners to help our community be able to dream again for their future and Lahaina’s future.”
Video from the blessing event is available here: https://fb.watch/oMDObNvs9b/