Hawaii’s acute lack of affordable housing is “largely a manufactured crisis,” according to Trey Gordner, the featured guest on Monday’s “Hawaii Together” program on ThinkTech Hawaii.
Gordner is a civic technologist who recently earned a master’s degree in urban and regional planning from Virginia Tech. His thesis was on measuring the restrictiveness of land-use regulations. He now is working remotely from Oahu to develop a “Hawaii Zoning Atlas,” which will show “what can and cannot be built ‘by right’ on every parcel in the state.”
Interviewed by Ted Kefalas, director of strategic campaigns for the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii, Gordner said he didn’t come up with the “zoning atlas” idea. The first one was developed in Connecticut and has resulted in many reforms being adopted by that state’s legislature.
Gordner said there are two main barriers to more housing in Hawaii:
“The first is that there are at least two diverging visions of Hawaii’s future that need to be reconciled. One prioritizes conservation of land and traditional culture, and probably believes that the islands are already overdeveloped and overexploited. The other vision is of prosperous modern cities with diversified and growing economies.”
He said neither is politically viable in isolation, but he sees room for compromise.
“For example,” he said, “a common slogan you hear here is keeping the country ‘country.’ The best way to do that is by making the cities ‘cities.’ High-density living is better for the environment, uses less land, energy, fuel. So there’s a way that we can have more residents have a more prosperous, diverse economy and also not have any larger impacts on our environment, our use of land.”
Gordner said the second main barrier is the state’s “public participation process,” which, when it comes to land-use issues, “disproportionately empowers local opponents.”
For example, he said, “a single persistent resident who dislikes the idea of having a few more neighbors can hold up a development for years, through requests for audits, studies, impact assessments, and, when all else fails, lawsuits. When every neighborhood does that, we end up with no new housing regardless of what we need and even regardless of what the plan conditionally enables.”
Gordner said ultimately the goal is to have a zoning atlas for the entire country. If anyone would like to volunteer to help finish the Hawaii Zoning Atlas, he added, they should please email him at email@example.com.
To view the entire interview, see the video below. A complete transcript is provided.
6-6-22 Trey Gordner with Ted Kefalas on “Hawaii Together”
Ted Kefalas: Aloha, and welcome to “Hawaii Together” on the ThinkTech Hawaii broadcast network. I’m Ted Kefalas, director of strategic campaigns for the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii and I’ll be standing in today for our regular host, Dr. Keli’i Akina.
Today’s topic is “Mapping out Hawaii’s housing regulations” and our guest is Trey Gordner, a researcher in urban and regional planning with the Hawaii Zoning Atlas. Trey’s been working remotely from Ewa Beach to develop a zoning tool that could help policymakers better understand housing regulation in our state, and possibly motivate them to embrace zoning reform.
Thank you so much for being with us here today, Trey.
Trey Gordner: It’s my pleasure.
Kefalas: Now, before we get started, I did have to mention that I graduated from the University of Virginia and you’re a Virginia Tech grad. so For those viewers here in Hawaii, you may not be aware that it’s a pretty big rivalry back on the mainland, but we’ll look to put those differences aside and work together here in the spirit of “E hana kākou.”
Gordner: That sounds great.
Kefalas: Trey, before we get started, give us a little insight into your background and how did you get involved in this issue?
Gordner: I’m a civic technologist. In other words, I use code to serve the common good. I just finished a master’s [degree] in urban and regional planning from Virginia Tech, like you mentioned. And my thesis topic was on measuring the restrictiveness of land-use regulations. Before that, I led software teams for nonprofits and startups, including one that I co-founded.
I got involved in this issue specifically because land-use regulations are one of the most important aspects of local government — in my view — and also one of the least understood. These laws determine where we can live, work and shop. They specify where buildings can go, what they can and can’t be used for, how tall they can be, how many there can be on a piece of land, and numerous other parameters.
So, if you live on Oahu, for example, the house and neighborhood you live in, the length of your commute, those things were more or less legally determined in 1986, which is the last time the land-use ordinance was revised. And the pattern of development that they chose at that time was heavily suburban and car-centric. So whether you care about the environment, the economy, issues of equity, you have a reason to be concerned about these regulations and to understand them better.
Kefalas: Sure. Now, you mentioned Oahu. Let’s talk a little bit more about housing regulation here in Hawaii. How would you assess Hawaii’s regulatory structure with respect to housing?
Gordner: It’s convoluted, to be sure, but so is just about everywhere else. There was a UHERO report recently on housing regulation in Hawaii — you may have seen that — and they measure 12 different aspects of regulation. The average county in Hawaii is above average for the nation in nine out of the 12.
So not only are we among the most regulated in the country, but it’s broad-based, meaning there’s no single rule change that will fix things. We’ll have to reconsider every aspect of our approach to permitting development.
Kefalas: Wow. So, given that, what do you think are really the main barriers to housing and the regulations here in Hawaii?
Gordner: I’ll mention two main issues. The first is that there are at least two diverging visions of Hawaii’s future that need to be reconciled. One prioritizes conservation of land and traditional culture, and probably believes that the islands are already overdeveloped and overexploited. The other vision is of prosperous modern cities with diversified and growing economies.
Neither of these is politically viable in isolation. They’re going to have to come to some sort of consensus in order for us to move forward on these issues.
I see some room for compromise. For example, a common slogan you hear here is keeping the country “country.” The best way to do that is by making the cities “cities.” High-density living is better for the environment, uses less land, energy, fuel.
So there’s a way that we can have more residents, have a more prosperous, diverse economy, snd also not have any larger impacts on our environment, our use of land.
There’s also the possibility that we could have some sort of arrangement like more neighbors, less tourists. So with more residents to bear the cost of public services, we wouldn’t have to depend so heavily on tourist dollars, and could develop industries by residents for residents.
So that’s the first barrier, the two different visions that we need to reconcile.
I think the second main barrier is our public-participation process when it comes to land-use issues. Like others across the country, this disproportionately empowers local opponents. When a new apartment complex is proposed in a certain neighborhood, for example, the local government does not survey people across the county. It does not enforce the economic necessity of more housing. It asks the neighbors.
So a single persistent resident who dislikes the idea of having a few more neighbors can hold up a development for years, through requests for audits, studies, impact assessments and, when all else fails, lawsuits.
When every neighborhood does that, we end up with no new housing regardless of what we need and even regardless of what the plan conditionally enables.
Kefalas: Sure. And a lot of that, too, like you mentioned, I think, is classified as the Not in my Backyard group of crowds. Just a little tidbit, this year there was actually a bill passed here in Hawaii that was HB1837. It was called the Yes in my Backyard Act, and kind of looked to do a lot of these things that you’re talking about, Trey.
It’s a first step. It’s really just a focus group at this point to study the issue, but is definitely something that we see here in Hawaii and something that lawmakers are taking very seriously.
So you had mentioned earlier about the Hawaii Zoning Atlas. Tell us a little bit more about that tool that you’re developing, and how did you come up with that idea?
Gordner: The Hawaii Zoning Atlas will be an interactive online map that shows what can and can’t be built “by right” on every parcel in the state.
The goal is to reveal the connection between the rules that we’ve imposed on land use and the outcomes we see in the housing markets, that is, unaffordable housing in sprawling suburban communities.
So we want to educate residents on the issues of land use and zoning, and empower them to ask their local and state governments for necessary changes to resolve this situation. I’m the one implementing this idea in Hawaii, but I’m not the originator of the idea.
It was actually developed by someone named Dr. Sara Bronin in Connecticut first. She and a team of researchers created the Connecticut Zoning Atlas, and published their methods, so people like me could reproduce their work in other states.
So I am working from their data standard and am contributing Hawaii’s zoning regulations and land-use regulations to what would be a national zoning atlas to help us understand better how we compare with other places in the country as well.
Kefalas: Sure. Absolutely. And that sounds great. We’re very appreciative of your work on that, Trey.
You mentioned Connecticut and other states that are working on similar types of tools. Have these sorts of zoning tools led to any reforms yet on the mainland? Or is there anything in place yet?
Gordner: Yes. The Connecticut Zoning Atlas was a critical part of the 2021 legislative cycle in Connecticut. It revealed the need for reform, provided advocates with important talking points and a very clear understanding of the specific rules that needed to be changed. And it inspired successful legislation — HB6107, for people who are curious.
The biggest impact was a substantial reform to the state zoning enabling act. That is the law by which most states delegate zoning powers to localities. Now, localities in Connecticut are required by law to promote housing choice and economic diversity with their zoning codes, and also to address disparities in housing availability.
The law also legalized and improved upon the rules for what we would call ohana units here, the accessory dwelling units. It capped minimum parking requirements and made many other common-sense changes that have been recommended by researchers for years.
Kefalas: Sure, absolutely. We’ve talked a lot about zoning, but what about building codes? While it can be argued that a lot of building codes include important safeguards to ensure buildings are safe, they can sometimes be pretty demanding and add cost to home construction. Is there a place for these kinds of building codes in your Hawaii Zoning Atlas?
Gordner: Yeah. We won’t be working with building codes in the first iteration of the atlas. I agree with you, it is something that we need to think about when it comes to housing affordability, But the actual impact of the building code is a little bit mixed.
On the one hand, the building code, as you probably know if you’ve seen it, is hundreds of pages of very specific requirements, for everything from door hinges, and entrance and egress to exit signs and stairwells and how big the eaves can be. So there are a lot of rules in there, and at first glance, it seems like those would also be restricting development. That’s potentially true.
On the other hand, it also standardizes development across jurisdictions, which makes things cheaper for developers. There are effects on both sides for building codes. It’s not as clear.
I would say that we should at least look at updating the building code for the state of Hawaii to be consistent with more recent revisions of the International Building Code on which all building codes are based.
The more recent iterations include sustainable and inexpensive materials like mass timber — which is something that we could also consider here, and is important here for reducing the other side of the equation in addition to land costs, which are influenced by zoning — which are the construction costs.
Kefalas: Sure. Now, what are some of the things you hope will happen when people use this Hawaii Zoning Atlas? Is it something that you’re focused more on the state issues? Or is it something you’re looking more for a national campaign?
Gordner: The Hawaii Zoning Atlas is about Hawaii and intended to help native Hawaiians and Hawaii residents first and foremost. We’re contributing to this national project but, ultimately, the reason it makes sense to do this here is because many of the challenges that we’re facing with housing and affordability, housing choice, are the same issues that other areas are facing.
And so my hope for what happens when people use the Hawaii Zoning Atlas, what they take away from it, is that they realize that what we are facing is, at least in part, a manufactured crisis. The rules that we’ve put in place have a direct and significant impact on the availability and the cost of housing. Those rules are also supported by property owners who benefit from increases in property values, but those gains aren’t productive. We’re not producing anything more as this price is going up. It’s just the same land, and it’s a waiting game.
That money is simply taken out of the pockets of renters and businesses and the next generation down the road who also wants to live here. Because there’s an entrenched base of support for these regulations, one that explains their longstandingness and ubiquity.
But those interested in building more housing will have to form an equally well organized and persistent group that presents the opposite point of view in public meetings. So that’s kind of the second lesson. It’s fundamentally a political struggle.
I hope, one, people realize that what we’re facing is largely a manufactured crisis, and two, I hope that the silent supporters of new construction, the people who want to live here but can’t afford to, start showing up at public meetings and testifying in favor of these projects.
Kefalas: Now, we 100% agree, and we definitely want to get more people involved in supporting some of these projects to help lower the cost of living. Sounds like what you’re saying is it’s really just kind of a basic supply-and-demand issue, that we have a lot of demand and not enough supply.
Just looking at Hawaii in general, what are some of the biggest reforms that would help allow for the development of more housing here in Hawaii?
Gordner: Well, first, I want to expand on the point you just made about supply and demand.
It’s important to recall that land-use regulations, building regulations, are not all bad, and they’re a means to get a certain outcome. And so the same building codes that increase the expense for developers to produce these homes also ensure that the home you live in is well built and will last through the years, and won’t end up bursting into flames or toppling in an earthquake. There are reasons for these codes.
Bbut there are also systems of involvement by which these codes have changed from their original goal over time. It’s more from a preservation of public health and welfare to a preservation of property values for the people who can benefit.
So state lawmakers in particular have focused on the demand side of the equation. Really, I guess the city and county have too — you know, the empty homes tax, the cracking down on short-term rentals, those sorts of things. The idea is, maybe we can reduce demand for all of these properties and give locals an opportunity to live.
But there’s been relatively little emphasis on the supply side, where we actually build more and build sensibly in order to accommodate the new demand that happens every year when people graduate from college and come back, [or] graduate from high school, get married and start to form new households.
So as far as the reforms that could help the development of more housing in Hawaii — not to be evasive, but the Zoning Atlas is really trying to answer that very question at a specific and small level. We’ll have a much better sense of that when our work is finished.
There are some general principles from other jurisdictions that policymakers here could consider. One of them is to end approval delays by emphasizing by-right development in future zoning rules. There’s a great article on [the website] “Strong Towns” that it seems like “maybe” always means “no.” There’s a special category, called conditional uses, in the zoning code which says, “Well, if everybody agrees that this parcel can become an apartment complex, then it can be.”
A lot of land is covered and it gives the perception that there’s much more capacity available than there is. But in practice, whenever anyone tries to build that kind of conditional use, they quickly run into the local opposition.
So the by-right rules are the effective rules, and if we want to deal with the approval delays — which UHERO found was one of the places in which Hawaii was an outlier — then we have to get closer to by-right development, minimal ministerial review, for projects that we really support.
There’s also, in general, increasing the cost of holding property at less than its highest and best use. This one isn’t always very popular because a lot of people like their house very much, even if it’s right in town and very convenient for them, when the highest and best use would say that actually 20 people, 40 people or more could live on that same piece of land, and that would be a higher and better use societally.
So increasing the cost of holding property will be politically contentious, but it’s something that’s been shown to be necessary and effective. Facilitating construction innovation, mass timber, 3D printing, prefabricated components like we talked about with the building codes, and making infrastructure investments in the urban core, because a big part of the opposition — or at least one tack that the opposition takes — is that we don’t have the infrastructure capacity in order to handle more residents.
And so, investing proactively in the infrastructure that will be able to handle those residents in the places where it makes the most sense — to house them, near their jobs and near retail centers — is something that the policymakers can do now.
Kefalas: Sure. Now, that all sounds great. You also touched on that your tool, you guys are still completing the research. When will that tool, do you think, be available? And is that something that will be accessible to the general public, or would that be more solely for legislators, policymakers and potentially members of the media?
Gordner: We aim to complete interactive maps of all four counties with zoning powers by September. The map will be available to everyone. It will be available open online on the Hawaii Zoning Atlas website. For those interested in what it might look like, you can look at Desegregate Connecticut. That’s where the Connecticut Zoning Atlas is located to get a sense of what it will look like here.
So we aim to complete all of those by September and also to release individual counties as we complete them between now and then.
Kefalas: That’s wonderful. We’re really glad. At Grassroot Institute, we are always fans of transparency, and so anytime that you can open something up to the general public, it’s always great to just allow people to get a chance to look and see what actually is going on in their cities and state.
I think we’ve kind of talked about this throughout the program, but at the end of the day, what is your No. 1 priority for building this tool, and who do you think will benefit the most from it?
Gordner: I saw this quotation on Twitter by somebody named Lyle Solla-Yates that really stuck with me. “I’m building this tool because,” he said, and I quote, “our regulations should help us get to the world we want to live in, not be the most powerful things standing in our way.”
I think that there are people in Hawaii who have a very different vision of the world that they want to live in than the one that is enabled by the regulations as we have them now.
So I’d like to see people become more sensitive to the effect of regulations on their lives. Of course, particularly land-use regulations in this case, and get us away from what Hannah Arendt called “the rule by Nobody,” where we’re all simply having to exercise the rules as they’ve been written down for the past 200 years, instead of being able to make decisions for ourselves, either as a community or through our elected leaders.
So, as far as who will benefit from this tool primarily, my target audience is anyone who wants to live here but can’t afford to, long-term. That is who will be benefited the most by this data advocacy project, and by the change that we hope to engender, facilitate through this project.
Kefalas: That certainly is a big audience. As we’ve seen, Hawaii has one of the highest costs of living. And it’s something where at Grassroot Institute, we actually have a campaign that’s called “Why We Left Hawaii.” It highlights a lot of the stories about why people that were born here and locals have actually left and have gone on to the mainland, because of that high cost of living, for the most part.
Now, Trey, we really appreciate you taking the time. Is there anything else that you want to add? And is there anything that you want our viewers to really walk away with after watching this interview?
Gordner: As far as what to add, I’d be remiss if I didn’t note that we are looking for volunteers to help us. There are many different roles where you can get involved. We have a need for people who know a little bit about coding or working with websites, that would be helpful in order to help us produce the map and the website to host it.
We have a need for people who are just able and willing to flip through hundreds of pages of zoning regulations and extract the key bits of information that we need to gather from each of these counties.
We are looking for people who know a little bit about social media or are willing to help us produce these educational materials, videos, tweets, TikTok, fun things to help people understand these issues in a concise time.
And we’re looking for advocates, people who are going to take the information that we produce, go out, share with the community and generate this grassroots movement in order to perform.
We meet at the Code for Hawaii meetings on the first three Mondays of every month at 6 p.m. That includes tonight, for anyone viewing live. You can search for Code for Hawaii in Google to find the RSVP link. You can also email me to get involved. It’s firstname.lastname@example.org, my Virginia Tech email address.
We’re also looking for partners who would like to use our data when it’s ready and to be involved in a more legislative-aimed conversation, one that really seeks to set the agenda and shape the agenda for the 2023 cycle at the state level and in localities in the meantime.
Kefalas: That’s great. I’m sure we will be included in that group, Trey. We are very excited to see the data that you guys come out with. Again, just thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today and for speaking to our viewers, and the work that you guys are all doing to explore zoning and government overregulation when it comes to housing here in Hawaii.
Of course, I also want to thank our audience for joining us today on another episode of “Hawaii Together.” My name is Ted Kefalas, standing in for Dr. Keli’i Akina. Until next time, aloha.