This picturesque little plantation town on the northern shore of Oahu, an hour's drive from Honolulu, is the setting for one of America's most ingenious low-income housing projects.

It is a place of flowering bushes and winding roads, of palm trees and a brilliant Pacific beach that seems a world removed from big-city problems of decayed housing and displacement.

But here, in the shadow of an abandoned sugar mill, the National Trust for Historic Preservation is sponsoring an Inner City Ventures Fund project to stop displacement of existing residents. In a state where average new home costs exceed $150,000, the goal is to rehabilitate houses that rent for $25 to $75 a month. Instead of flashy new condominiums, the goal is to keep intact a tightly knit community of erstwhile plantation workers of Filipino, Japanese, native Hawaiian, Portuguese, Chinese and Samoan descent.

Kahuku's 1,000 people were doing a lot for themselves before the National Trust entered the picture. Back in 1968, they learned that the Kahuku Plantation Co. soon would close the sugar mill that had given the town its birth in the 1890s and that was its chief means of employment.

Fearing for their livelihood and their homes, the townspeople formed the Kahuku Housing Corp., a nonprofit cooperative that permitted residents to continue living in the village's 244 plantation-built houses by buying a $100 share and paying low monthly rental. They successfully negotiated with Alexander & Baldwin, the big Hawaii firm that ran the sugar mill, and the Campbell Estate, which owned the land, for a no-cost lease running from the mill's November 1971 closing to June 1983.

The galvanized Kahukuans also fought like tigers for replacement jobs. They backed a proposed resort hotel opposed by nearby communities; then they threatened--successfully--to picket the hotel unless it came through with the job-training program and the 100-plus jobs it had promised. Other residents found jobs in government; several formed a farm cooperative that grows papayas, melons, cucumbers and raises pigs. Unemployment dropped to below its level during plantation days.

"Survival was the thing," said John Primacio Jr., the third-generation plantation worker of Filipino-Portuguese descent who became the housing corporation's general manager and Kahuku's de facto mayor.

The Kahukuans have become their own government and landlord wrapped into one. Their housing corporation, ensconced in the old plantation office, collects rents, makes repairs, maintains the town's lighting and water systems, runs a credit union and senior citizens' center and pays property taxes to the City and County of Honolulu. It also has persuaded residents to contribute extra sums of money on a regular basis--the so-called Japanese tanamoshi system, a kind of shared community savings program--to create a nest egg for buying the property and rehabilitating homes.

By June, the housing corporation must negotiate a final sale of the land from the Campbell Estate, bargain with the city on subdividing the town and improving antiquated infrastructure, and work out with the National Trust the last details of a multiyear housing renovation plan. A $300,000 deal is contemplated, with $120,000 from community residents, $130,000 from outside donations--including, most likely, a big farewell gift from Alexander & Baldwin--and $50,000 from the National Trust.

Can all these deals and arrangements be pulled off by the ordinary folk of an old sugar-mill plantation? A few years ago, few people would have believed so. Today, necessity says the answer has to be "yes." Banks often lack the liquidity for sole financing when they're partners to deals. City cupboards are often bare. Private donations may help--but only so far. Insurance companies may be willing to invest--but only on a shared-risk basis. So multisided deals are the order of the day, said Mark Weinheimer, project manager for the National Trust's Inner City Ventures Fund.

The National Trust's inner-city projects in such cities as New Orleans, Chicago, Hartford, Conn., and Springfield, Mass., for example, involve bringing in groups of private investors by syndicating the federal tax credits now available for historic rehabilitation.

Across the country, financial institutions are finding that neighborhood groups that 10 years ago might have met them on the picket lines or that five years ago might have come asking for grants today not only suggest investment but propose complex syndication projects.

What the grass-roots groups so often need are friendly outside groups to provide constructive investment counsel plus an infusion of dollars to make their deals more attractive to local investors.

Through $1.2 million in loans and grants, the National Trust's Inner City Ventures Fund has leveraged $22.5 million in 19 separate projects designed to curb gentrification and save historic housing for low-income people.

Such efforts can't start to make up for lost federal subsidies. But they show a resourcefulness the federal programs rarely had. And they establish attractive models.

Kahuku is an example. Because it involves community people doing for themselves with private money, "What happens in Kahuku will spread, as pineapple and sugar decline, to plantations across these islands," Phyliss Fox of the Historic Hawaii Foundation suggested.