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It is universally acknowledged that Hawaii residents need more homes. So why is it so hard to build them?

When you ask people about their frustrations with the cost of living in Hawaii, high home prices and rental rates are among the first things mentioned. It’s a topic that comes up a lot in the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii’s “Why we left Hawaii” series.

The Henderson family is a perfect example of why people are leaving Hawaii.

Originally from Texas, Brandie and Clint Henderson moved to Maui in 2010. They started a business there called Maui on the Fly, and all three of their children were born there. By 2017, they needed additional space for their twins, but even with a VA loan, they couldn’t find a home in Lahaina without six figures in the bank. So, after “eight wonderful years” in Hawaii, the family moved back to Texas. 

As Brandie wrote: “We noticed super-high rental rates and almost no places to even look at anymore. It was sad to see three and four generations living in a single tiny home because no one could afford to live on their own.”

Housing in Hawaii is expensive because there aren’t enough homes to meet demand. The obvious solution is to build more homes. But that is easier said than done.

When it’s just a question of driving nails, installing plumbing and so on, it doesn’t take long to build a house. Builders say it can be done in about three months.

But jumping through all the regulatory and administrative hoops is another thing entirely. Just getting the necessary permissions to build a new home in Hawaii can take three to five years — and that’s when the project is on the “fast track.”

If that’s the fast track, imagine how long the “regular” track must be. In Hawaii, going by normal procedures means that it can take more than a decade to get moving on a building project. By then, developers are more inclined to give up or retire than continue.

Building new homes for a nice, close-knit community of the kind the Hendersons were seeking also requires urban zoning. But in Hawaii there’s not a lot of urban-zoned land to go around. Statewide the total is about only 5%, with the rest being agriculture or conservation land. 

The solution is to increase the amount of land available for housing, something that could be done without any harm to conservation areas. Increasing urban zoning to just 6% would comprise a 20% increase!

Ironically, the lack of urban zoning isn’t a problem for developers who build mansions, because building a single house on an acre doesn’t necessarily require urban zoning. This creates a perverse incentive to build mansions over much-needed affordable housing, since it saves the developer years of jumping through bureaucratic hoops.

All of this contributes to the supply problem that sent the Hendersons — and so many other local families — to the mainland. When you make building affordable houses a difficult, time-consuming endeavor, there will be fewer houses available to buy or rent.

With so many people in Hawaii in need of affordable homes, we should be lowering the barriers to development and making the building process faster. 

Families such as the Hendersons are looking for homes in which they can raise their children. But those children might be grown, graduated and headed to the mainland themselves before the new homes get built.