Gov. Josh Green took decisive action last month to ease the state’s housing crisis, and Malia Hill, policy director of the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii, told host Rick Hamada on KHVH News Radio 830 last Thursday that she “understand[s] why the governor did what he did.”
Hill said the the governor’s emergency proclamation suspended numerous laws and regulations to make it easier to build homes, and was an indictment of the years of inaction by the Legislature on the housing issue.
She described the proclamation as a “test,” and said most Hawaii residents are probably wondering if the proclamation will really pave the way for housing growth.
“I think most of us are hoping that it will,” she said,
She added: “No one wants to be there with ‘The end justifies the means.’ But if the end would at least demonstrate, ‘Yes, go do this. Legislature, county, go reduce all this red tape” — that would be something. That would be the way forward for us, at least.”
However, Hill said, the Gov. Green’s latest emergency proclamation on housing does raise the question again about Hawaii’s constitutional balance of powers.
It’s a subject Hill knows well: She wrote the Institute’s January 2021 “Lockdowns Versus Liberty” report about Gov. David Ige’s seemingly endless COVID-19 emergency proclamations.
She said state law basically says “an emergency is what the governor says that emergency is,” and Hawaii courts typically give “a lot of leeway to executives in an emergency.” Thus, she said, it’s “anyone’s guess” how the courts will respond to any possible legal challenges to the housing proclamation.
The Legislature, she said, had the chance to rein in the governor’s emergency powers during last year’s legislative session, but chose not to.
However, Hill said, now that the issue has come up again, “it really does is just put pressure on the Legislature and say, ‘Are you going to act? Are you going to do something? Or are you just going to get conspired in the inaction we’ve seen for years and years and years?’”
If you would like to hear the entire 15-minute conversation, click on the image below. A complete transcript follows.
7-27-23 Malia Blom Hill with radio host Rick Hamada on KHVH News Radio 830
Rick Hamada: Joining us is Malia Blom Hill. I want to welcome you back to the program Malia, and a very good morning to you.
Malia Blom Hill: Good morning. Thank you so much.
Hamada: Would you mind a brief reintroduction of yourself and then we’ll jump on into our topics today, please?
Hill: Oh, absolutely. My name is Malia Hill. I’m a policy director at the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii. Grassroot Institute, as you know, is an organization — a think tank — focusing on free market and liberty in Hawaii.
Hamada: There we have it. By the way, much appreciation to Grassroot. And by the way, I think a couple of kudos, I believe, awarded from the Society of Professional Journalists recently?
Hill: Yes, that’s right. For our political cartoons and also for the weekly “President’s [Corner]” message]. It was very exciting — very flattering.
Hamada: Congratulations. Well deserved for your team.
Hill: Thank you.
Hamada: If you don’t mind, I wanna jump in, Malia, if it’s OK. I just had a brief conversation about it in regard to the governor’s emergency proclamation and this, of course, in regard to housing. And it’s a complex story that is generating more reactions, et cetera, in the general public.
Malia, can you take us whichever direction you’d like to go and [give us] an explanation of the proclamation and where we are today?
Hill: Yeah, it really is an interesting one because, you know, personally, it was a difficult thing to contemplate if you are someone who both has a sort of, you know, wariness about executive power and use of executive orders, emergency powers. But at the same time, you’re just frustrated at the way that housing, you know, addressing the housing crisis in Hawaii, has gone.
And I guess even though I’m like the queen of restrained emergency powers and such — even wrote a whole report about that — I understand why the governor did what he did.
When you read that proclamation, it’s almost like an indictment of just years and years of not only, you know, not addressing the problem from the various legislative bodies — county and state — but actually just sort of piling on and piling on until we have so much regulation and delay, that it’s … Basically, the idea that we’re going to build enough housing with the level of regulation that we have is laughable.
So, you know, the governor acts; he does something that just cuts through so much of red tape.
I mean, it’s funny — you could criticize it from either side. You could say that he went too far; you could say that he could have done more. You know, I tend to lean on to that he could have done more. But I guess that just shows the balance he’s trying to do there in the hopes of just actually getting something done.
It’s really … There’s so much here. There’s so much to unpack.
Hamada: Right, right.
So, in my conversation with Chad [Blair] previously, the invocation of emergency proclamation — that gives many of us pause because of our experience with COVID. Now, it’s not a direct parallel, but the commonality of emergency declaration. And in a summary of what the governor had said is that — and let me get this correct — suspend, quoting, “all the laws that get in our way.”
And I’m just curious: We’ve already heard that there’ll be legal challenges aplenty from environmental groups, but what do you portend for us in the general public of the impacts of this proclamation?
Hill: Well, you know, it’s almost a test. I mean, I think the one thing everyone’s wondering is: Is he right? Will it work? Is this what has, you know, stopped housing? Will this create more housing?
And you know, the emergency element of it … Well, the Legislature had the chance to revisit what was an emergency and how emergency powers could be used, and they chose not to. That was last year.
And so, you know, he is doing what he’s allowed to do under the law. Should that be the law? I mean, that’s a different question. Will those lawsuits succeed? Boy, is this something that I have looked at a bunch when we were talking about COVID. And again, you know, that’s anyone’s guess.
But, you know, I think a lot of people are just wondering about the practical effect. Will it work? Is this what is blocking housing growth? And I think most of us are hoping that it will.
I don’t know … You know, no one wants to be there with “the end justifies the means.” But if the end would at least demonstrate, “Yes, go do this. Legislature, county, go reduce all this red tape,” — that would be something. That would be the way forward for us, at least.
Hamada: When we do talk about cost of housing, the percentage that is due to regulation is astounding. And there have been dollar figures associated with it — percentages by UHERO [University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization] and others — that this is a substantial amount to the cost of housing in Hawaii.
I think you’re right — this is kind of a test. If there is a circumvention of these regulations and there’s an ability, then I think the test to pass it would be to eliminate or reduce those regulations to increase affordability.
Hill: Exactly. You know, the fact that this … [The governor] put forward this attempt to cut down, to streamline — it isn’t even, he’s not even trying to get it streamlined to like the national average. The national average from permitting to end of construction for a multi-family — 20 or more units — home is about 18 months. He’s asking for 36 months. Can you complete what you’re doing in 36 months?
So we’re not even seeing … you know, we’re just seeing, “Please cut it down some, compared to what the Hawaii average is,” — which is three times more. And that cost is adding hundreds of thousands of dollars to the cost of a home.
Plus, we just don’t have enough. So then you have that whole demand issue where that drives the price up more.
You know, the fact that everyone’s fighting over it just kind of shows you why we haven’t managed to make these changes at the legislative level yet.
Hamada: Talking with Malia. It is the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii. And I want to thank Grassroot for dedicating time to help us understand.
Before we move on to something else, how about, Malia, your thoughts on what the next steps will be? And from a legal standpoint, could there be — if you will — a stay of this proclamation in the courts, or what do you, again, suppose would be next?
Hill: Well, from a legal standpoint, like I said, I haven’t looked at how this specific proclamation would be challenged because that’s not necessarily where I’m coming from.
But when we examined the COVID proclamation, we looked at it from the perspective of, you know, is this upsetting the balance of power and could it be challenged on that basis? And in other states it was, could be, and successfully was challenged. Hawaii is Hawaii, and it depends on what Hawaii courts would say.
Generally speaking, Hawaii gives a lot of leeway to executives in an emergency. And they will look at the Hawaii statute, which basically says an emergency is what the governor says that emergency is. And so, it’s really anyone’s guess what a court would do in terms of it.
Hamada: I’m just going to bring up what David Kimo Frankel had mentioned, of the Sierra Club.
And he said, quoting, “There’s going to be a lot of litigation as a result of this.” And he prefaced it by saying, “It’s unconstitutional, it’s anti-Hawaiian, it’s anti-environment and it’s anti-democratic.” And so, that kind of sentiment’s being advanced in a couple of different areas.
Hill: Yeah, I made a strong case — again, back during COVID and not this specific proclamation — about how executive orders, you know, could upset the balance of powers. And that’s probably what he means by that.
But again, you know, theory and what a court does are two very different things.
Hamada: Sure. Absolutely.
So, I’m just going to have a layperson’s comment, and that is: Emergency crisis in housing. Is that precipitated by homelessness or the potential number of homeless who are perhaps houseless — sleeping on a couch or sharing a parent’s home again, or something like that?
Or is it just because we have a profound seven-year-plus out-migration annually of people saying, “I just can’t afford this anymore.”
And if it’s one or all of those justifications, I don’t see this proclamation ending. It would be similar to COVID because there’ll always be a justification to say, “We’re not there, we’re not there, we’re not there.”
Hill: Yeah, it really does. You know, that’s exactly it. It would have to be extended because, in his emergency proclamation, it’s all of that. You know, he doesn’t even just say — [in the] emergency proclamations and the other stuff they’ve put out — they don’t even just say, just the most affordable homes. They specifically avoid that because the idea is that people all over the economic spectrum in Hawaii are having problems with finding housing that they can afford.
So, it’s everything. And they do, you know, in the effort to bolster the idea of it’s an emergency, point out that it’s causing out-migration. That that might cause health problems and they kind of throw the kitchen sink in there.
So, it does suggest in order to be effective, you would have to keep extending it. Which then brings in the whole question again about, you know, how the balance of powers works. And I think what it really does is just put pressure on the Legislature and say, “Are you going to act? Are you going to do something? Or are you just going to get conspired in the inaction we’ve seen for years and years and years?”
Hamada: I’ll tell you what, Malia, this is a story, the potential of being a dominant story for the remainder of the year and beyond. So I want to thank you for all the time and attention and details with this story.
Before we move on, can you tell us once again about Grassroot Institute? Is there anything else you’d like to share? Potentially events or anything along those lines?
Hill: Well, thank you. Please visit our website, if you want to read more about emergency powers, solutions for housing, our reaction to the governor’s proclamation. You can visit our website at grassrootinstitute.org, and that’s also where you can keep track of events.
And thank you very, very much for having me.
Hamada: Oh, it is an absolute pleasure.
We have a few minutes remaining and I was wondering if I could impose upon you for perhaps an update or two. For instance, Grassroot had reported that $54 per passenger cost in regard to rail.
I now understand there has been another drop in ridership over the past three weeks. And I’d like to get your take. Anything else about the rail project that you’d like to share in the research by Grassroot? And has there been reports of people becoming ill, nauseous, motion sickness from riding the Skyline?
Hill: You know, I hadn’t heard about that, but I’m not surprised because I personally get sick. I’m prone to that, so I can’t really speak to that. That might not be an indictment of rail; some of us just get motion-sick. [laughs]
But the cost is important and interesting. You know, it’s been claimed that no one makes their money back. All public transit operates at a loss. And it’s true that a lot of public transit, especially in the United States, operates at a loss. But we’re still, that’s still very bad — like, that much of a loss.
And I think that we have to really understand what it means in terms of going forward. Like the probability that we will see an effort to extend the rail surcharge.
We always say, “Watch out for surcharges,” because, you know, there’s no such thing as a temporary tax increase. And, you know we’re looking at the rail car charge being extended and possibly being made permanent. You know, we will keep paying for this.
And for goodness sake, if nothing else, take these lessons into the next time we have someone come up with a big shiny project that they promise won’t cost what everyone’s warned it might cost.
Hamada: Well, we have one that’s in the offing, and that is our stadium, so …
Hill: When we talk about the Aloha Stadium, let’s not forget about rail.
Hamada: I do call it Rail Part 2, but that’s my own take.
Again, I can’t thank you enough, Malia, for helping us and being a part of the program. Please come back soon and join us again.
Hill: Oh, I would love to. Thank you so much.
Hamada: Thank you so much, indeed. That is Malia Hill with the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii, policy director, and thoughtful conversation about issues before us.