What we can do to lower the cost of housing in Hawaii

Photo by Charley Myers

The following is the cover letter we included when we sent two recent housing studies to all lawmakers throughout the islands, at both the state and county levels. Written by Joe Kent, Grassroot Institute of Hawaii executive vice president, the letter introduced “How to Build Affordable, Thriving Neighborhoods: A State and Local Zoning Reform Toolkit,” produced by the national State Policy Network, and “Reform the state LUC to encourage more housing,” issued by the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii. 

Dear [Hawaii lawmaker],

At the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii, we have long been exploring ways to help ease Hawaii’s housing crisis, and here we wish to share some of our findings with you. Enclosed for your consideration (and possibly reading pleasure) are:

>> A copy of our recent policy brief concerning the state Land Use Commission, “Reform the state LUC to encourage more housing.” 

>> A zoning-reform “toolkit” produced by the national State Policy Network, “How to Build Affordable, Thriving Neighborhoods: A State and Local Zoning Reform Toolkit,” which lists numerous policy options for zoning reform.

In case you don’t have the time to read the full SPN report, here is a summary of proposals from it most applicable to Hawaii:

>> Allow smaller housing. Let housing be as small as builders, buyers and renters want.

>> Allow smaller lots. Minimum lot sizes have no clear health or safety justification.

>> Allow residences in commercial districts. Allow office parks and malls to build housing. Allow vacant downtown storefronts to convert to residential use.

>> Allow taller buildings. Remove limits on height. Where fire department capabilities might be affected, ensure that new buildings can provide for their own fire response.

>> Allow subdivision of existing structures. Historically one of the most important sources of low-cost housing has been single-family homes that were turned into boarding homes or subdivided into apartments. 

>> Allow single-room occupancy buildings. Housing with shared bathroom and/or kitchen facilities benefits low-income residents, especially near dense employment districts.

>> Legalize the “Golden Girls.” Remove or loosen restrictions on the number of occupants or nonrelated persons allowed in a housing unit, except for fire code restrictions.

>> Waive some building code requirements for temporary homeless shelters. Imperfect housing for unsheltered homeless populations is better than the status quo.

>> Allow extra kitchens. Permit homeowners to add additional kitchens to adapt to their evolving needs.

>> Allow accessory apartments. Accessory dwelling units add more housing and often can make it possible for the homeowners to better afford their own housing costs.

>> Allow larger “house” on the same land. Reduce setback, floor area ratio and lot-coverage rules.

>> End single-family-only zoning. Many people cannot afford a large, detached house. Allow duplexes, triplexes or fourplexes in places zoned only for single-family houses.

>> Enact a “Permit Freedom Act” for building permits. Require clear permitting standards, defined response time and the option for independent judicial review.

>> Publish pre-approved plans. Pre-approve plans for common projects like ADUs or single-family homes, then permit expedited review for projects using these plans.

>> Reduce political approvals. If a project complies with existing zoning, it shouldn’t require more than a planning department approval and building permits to proceed.

>> Set up one-stop, parallel-process permitting. Let applicants submit all permitting documents in one place. Allow departmental reviews to happen at the same time. 

>> Outsource building permit application review. Outsource plumbing, electrical, mechanical and structural code review when demand peaks. 

The main point we wish to make in sharing these two reports with you (and your staff) is that resolving Hawaii’s housing crisis requires increasing its housing supply. 

Fortunately, we need only some creative ideas — and perhaps some political courage. These reports can help you with the creative ideas; the rest is up to you.

Thank you very much for your consideration. If you have any questions or comments, I invite you or one of your staff to call or email me.

Joe Kent
Executive vice president
Grassroot Institute of Hawaii


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