Hawaii isle zoning review could lead to more housing

The following commentary was originally published March 5, 2023, by the Hawaii Tribune-Herald.

Hawaii island’s housing supply might get a boost in the near future, thanks to an effort underway to update the county’s zoning code.

A project team working with the Hawaii County Department of Planning has been reviewing and proposing changes to the code, which has not been overhauled since 1996.

This update is long overdue, especially since housing continues to be unaffordable for many Hawaii Island residents, and improving the county zoning code might help change that.

A 2022 study by the Economic Research Organization at the University of Hawaii found that Hawaii County has the strictest land use regulations of any county in the entire United States, and that nationwide, such regulations are significantly related to high housing prices.

The good news is that there are many ways to make the county’s zoning laws more friendly to new housing. A good starting point would be to allow greater housing density.

Right now in Hawaii County, more than five times as many parcels are zoned for single-family units than for duplexes, triplexes and other forms of multifamily houses, which generally are far more affordable than single-family homes.

The county should also revisit minimum lot sizes, which specify that a land parcel has to be a certain size before a home can be built on it. All parcels in single-family residential zones must be at least 7,500 square feet. This is fine for anyone who can afford a big, sprawling yard, but many families cannot because county land values are so high.

Other zoning laws drive up costs, too. Parking minimums make housing and business construction more expensive by forcing builders to provide a certain number of parking spaces in each project.

A 2020 study by the Ulupono Initiative found that Hawaii County businesses can expect to pay more than $12,000 and home-builders more than $4,000 per parking space, which drives up the cost of living and doing business.

The county should also look at promoting mixed-use neighborhoods, combining commercial and residential uses. This would promote walkability, save on transportation costs and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Another important reform would be to adopt by-right approvals, whereby any project that meets existing specifications is approved automatically, without having to go through politicized public hearings where they can be delayed, which adds to building costs, or even denied.

For Hawaii Island, this zoning update will set the tone on housing policy for years to come. If bold reforms are not adopted, housing prices on the island likely will continue to soar, forcing many Hawaii residents to keep working two or three jobs just to make ends meet, or to simply move to the mainland or even onto the streets.

“Smart, clear regulation can spur greater home-building and help keep county ohana on the island they love,” said Joe Kent, Grassroot Institute of Hawaii executive vice president, in comments submitted earlier this month to the project team tasked with updating the codes.

When the county seeks public comment on the code update again later this year, Hawaii Island residents should let the planners know they favor zoning reform — on behalf of themselves and the generations to come.

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