Ever wonder why so many mansions are being built on Hawaii Island? It’s because they don’t involve a lot of red tape or public opposition.
The catch is they are being built on agricultural lands, where regulations allow one house per acre. This is why so many agricultural parcels are being sold as luxury real estate. Homebuilders who want to build single-family neighborhoods or low-rise apartments on ag lands must apply for a district boundary amendment, which typically triggers public hearings, public opposition and legal battles.
The point is not to subject mansions to the same red tape as other types of housing. Rather, the laws should be changed so more homes can be built “by right.” That is, if they meet all the existing requirements, they can be built without politics getting in the way — as it is for many of the island’s mansions.
To be clear, those who own mansions contribute to the county’s property tax base, and their philanthropy can prove vital to the community, such as when Salesforce CEO Mark Benioff donated $3 million to provide classroom resources for Hawaii’s teachers last year.
But it is ironic that Hawaii Island’s high housing regulations benefit the rich at the expense of the county’s general workforce, many of whom are struggling to meet their housing needs.
Hawaii County needs new homes to attract critical health care workers and teachers, stop the island’s brain drain and house future generations. A few affordable housing projects are making their way through the bureaucratic process, such as Ku‘u Papaikou on the Hamakua Coast and a Parker Ranch development in Waimea, but their success isn’t guaranteed.
If they fail, the landowners and homebuilders won’t be the only losers. The community will lose out on more affordably priced housing, while the wealthy keep building mansions.
This article was originally published as a letter to the editor in the Hawaii Tribune-Herald on Nov. 20, 2022.